Fall Dog Bombs the Moon

November 21, 2014

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Fall Dog Bombs the Moon.
Fall Dog Bombs the Moon (live, 2003).
Fall Dog Bombs the Moon (acoustic performance, AOL Sessions, 2003).
Fall Dog Bombs the Moon (live, 2003).
Fall Dog Bombs the Moon (live, 2004).

The sword…is unsheathed. The blade…stands ready.

Oliver North, Fox News, 18 March 2003.

Reality was a wartime album, written and cut during the United States’ invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. It was the record of a man living in a city whose attack had provided the justification for the war; it was the work of a British expatriate sickened by the war’s long, seemingly orchestrated media buildup.

Bowie told interviewers he’d turned to using an alternative news service called TruthOut. “A fabulous storehouse of information of what’s written in the alternative press, or the rest of the world’s press, that never really sees the light of day here,” he said to Ken Scrudato. Among the articles that had caught his eye were those about how the Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root had won the assignment of restoring and operating Iraq’s oil fields post-invasion. KBR had a long, illustrious career in supplying and cleaning up after various US wars, and on occasion being accused (and sometimes convicted) of bribery, shoddy workmanship, expense padding and sexual abuse and intimidation of its employees.* Its parent Halliburton had, until July 2000 (four days before his nomination), been run by the current vice-president, Dick Cheney.

Cheney was a 21st Century version of Shakespeare’s Richard III, if lacking the wit or taste for theatrics. What distinguished Cheney from his former boss Richard Nixon was that Cheney disclosed none of Nixon’s paranoia or long-collected resentments. Nixon was a brilliant man who was desperate that you knew he was; his pettiness was superhuman. Cheney was unreadable, shameless, unperturbed, placid. He seemingly existed to claim power and once he had it, he brooked no checks on it and moved in his own world. He didn’t care what anyone thought of him; it didn’t matter. Carping about something like Halliburton was merely a sign that you weren’t serious. His public persona was calm, genial, a wry smile often on his face.

What tends to happen is that a thing like an issue or a policy manifests itself as a guide,” Bowie told Interview. “It becomes a character of some kind.” Bowie began with a Cheney-like caricature. “There’s this guy saying, ‘I’m goddam rich…throw anything you like at me, baby, because I’m goddam rich. It doesn’t bother me.’ It’s an ugly song sung by an ugly man.” He wrote the lyric in a half-hour.

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“Fall Dog Bombs the Moon,” similar harmonically and rhythmically to “New Killer Star” in its verses (was one spun out of the other? derived from the same demo?), came together quickly as well: it’s the roughest-sounding of Reality tracks, with no keyboard dubs and its drums lacking reverb or even much presence in the mix. Bowie kept Tony Visconti’s original bassline (heard retorting to the guitar riff in breaks) from the studio demo and layered on guitars: his own scrappy rhythm playing, Earl Slick, Mark Plati and David Torn’s various overdubs, with various center- or right-mixed guitars vying to be the lead, and a harmonized solo for the outro. “Fall Dog” sounded like a collective memory of the past 20 years of “alternative” rock—a touch of “The Killing Moon” in the bassline, some Sonic Youth, Pixies and Yo La Tengo in its tangle of guitar tones, some late-period Lou Reed in the semi-spoken “what a dog” tags.

What was a “fall dog” anyhow? Some fans at the time took the line to be a thinly-veiled George W. Bush, a “fall dog” instead of a fall guy, while the “moon” could work as a reference to the Islamist star and crescent. “An exploding man” suggests a terrorist bomber, but also recall “The Motel,” with its climactic “re-exploding you” refrain (and the line follows “I’m goddam rich”—the dog’s so sated that he’s ready to blow). The lyrical perspective spins and weaves. An American soldier sees a girl in a marketplace with a bomb strapped to her. She runs towards him, he waits resignedly (“I don’t care much: I’ll win anyway“). A verse later he’s the exploding man (victim or bomber?).

Yet despite Bowie framing his song as a picture of some late capitalist monster (and sometimes it sounds as if he’s singing “full dog”), his phrasing undermined this reading. He keeps to a small vocal range, sounding wistful, not getting worked up, letting lines trail off. Or take the image of the Fall Dog itself, rich in rock ‘n’ roll history—is it a scamp like the Everly Brothers’ “Bird Dog” (possibly where Bowie took the “what a dog” tags from) or Bowie’s own “Diamond Dogs“? Or is it more like Iggy Pop’s dog—a man who yearns to submit?

The second verse—there’s always a moron, someone to hate—was taken as a comment on the United States’ endless need for a fresh enemy, but you could equally turn the line back on the antiwar protesters. Who was George W. Bush but a convenient “moron,” a comical authority figure taking the heat? Having a Bush or a Cheney in power gives the American citizen a day pass. I didn’t vote for this fool, and look what he’s done now! What a mess.

A line in Bowie’s earlier “Slow Burn” had called up a future: So small, in times such as these. It echoed in “Fall Dog”: These blackest of years…No shape, no depth, no underground. It’s life in the early 2000s, when even the villains lack stature.

Recorded: (backing tracks) January-February 2003,(lead guitars, vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios. Released 16 September 2003 on Reality.

* “We need to be fearful of companies that get so big that they can actually be directing policy…When the Iraq War started, Halliburton got a billion-dollar no-bid contract. Some of the stuff has been so shoddy and so sloppy that our soldiers are over there dying in the shower from electrocution. I mean, it shouldn’t be sloppy work; it shouldn’t be bad procurement process. But it really shouldn’t be that these people are so powerful that they direct even policy.” Sen. Rand Paul, April 2009.

Top: Cherie A. Thurlby, “Victory Sign in Iraq,” 28 April 2003.


Pablo Picasso

November 12, 2014

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Pablo Picasso (The Modern Lovers, 1972).
Pablo Picasso (The Modern Lovers, live, ca. 1971).
Pablo Picasso (John Cale, 1975).
Pablo Picasso (Cale, live, 1976).
Pablo Picasso (Talking Heads, live, 1976).
Pablo Picasso (Simple Minds, live, 1980).
Pablo Picasso (Burning Sensations, 1984).
Pablo Picasso (Cale, Rockpalast, 1984).
Pablo Picasso (Iggy Pop, broadcast, 1994).

Pablo Picasso (Television Personalities, ca. 1995).
Pablo Picasso (Bowie, 2003).
Pablo Picasso (Bowie, Riverside Studios performance, 2003).
Pablo Picasso (Bowie, live, 2003).
Pablo Picasso (Bowie, live, 2004).
Pablo Picasso (Jonathan Richman, live, 2007).

BGN: Who do you get your direction from in life and music? Does your song “Pablo Picasso” give us an idea? Do you love his paintings so much….(Jonathan starts shaking his head)…no, you don’t love his paintings so much. He was just not an asshole?

Jonathan Richman: I read about him when I was 18. I moved to New York and was intimidated by these girls who I thought were attractive. I was afraid to approach them. I didn’t have too high a self-image. I was self-conscious and I thought “well Pablo Picasso, he’s only 5 foot 3 but he didn’t let things like that bother him.” So I made up this song right after I saw those girls. You can picture it; I had this sad little look on my face and I was thinking ‘Why am I so scared to approach these girls?’ That was a song of courage for me.

Boston Groupie News, 1980.

Jonathan Richman was born in Natick, a suburb west of Boston, in 1951. Like Lewis Reed of Freeport, Long Island (born a decade earlier), Richman was a suburban Jew estranged from his parents who used rock ‘n’ roll music as a passkey. Richman’s catalyst was Reed’s band the Velvet Underground, whom Richman saw whenever they played Boston. By 1971 Richman had formed his own band, the Modern Lovers; a year later, they were recording demos with John Cale.

Like Ray Davies, a spiritual counterpart across the Atlantic, Richman wrote about the straights of the Sixties, those getting left behind, the suburbanites who read about the counterculture in newsweeklies. Richman’s masterpiece “Roadrunner” isn’t celebrating the freedom of the open road, as a drive around Natick or on the name-checked Route 128 (a traffic-calcified beltway that encircles Boston—its early Seventies incarnation aptly described by Joshua Clover as “a scungy corridor of doughnut shops and furniture stores”) will demonstrate. “Roadrunner” is about finding traces of the sublime in suburbia, taking refuge in your car when you drive through it: Stop ‘n’ Shop supermarkets, AM radio, McDonald’s, decaying tire outlets and car dealerships (“the spirit of 1956”). Richman sang about the dead Fifties, the dignity of old people, the secretaries and functionaries of Boston’s charmless Government Center. Hippies, when they showed up, were wastrels and creeps.

Yet Richman didn’t celebrate this prosperous middlebrow America (also the world of They Might Be Giants—Johns Linnell and Flansburgh were growing up in nearby Lincoln) as much he saw the beauty in its oddness, its sobriety, and saw how he stood apart from it. There’s darkness in his early songs. Richman’s girls get institutionalized (“She Cracked,” “Hospital“) and his first-person characters aren’t as guileless and sweet as they say they are. Instead they often come off as early-edition “nice guys,” putting girls on pedestals and growing resentful they aren’t appreciated for their efforts. “Hippie Johnny,” Richman’s rival on “I’m Straight,” sounds more fun than clingy straight-edge Jojo does, to be honest.

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“Pablo Picasso,” written around 1970, was one of the Cale demos later released on the 1976 Modern Lovers (a time-bomb of a record—while the band had broken up years before its issue, and Richman had moved to a softer style by ’76, the likes of “Roadrunner” and “Picasso” suddenly appeared for the fledgling punks to take up). As Richman said, he didn’t know anything about Picasso except what any suburban kid could’ve gleaned at the time. This was the Picasso of Life magazine profiles: an intense, bald, short man who lived with a string of impossibly beautiful women in canvas-strewn ateliers. He seemed older than America: he’d known Braque, James Joyce, Hemingway, probably King Henry VIII. He was often photographed shirtless, thrusting his chest out, striking poses like a boxer. He made painting seem like a war he’d won in single combat. A caricature of masculinity, king gorilla of the art world.

The song came from a trip to New York that Richman made right after graduating high school. Hoping to find a place in NYC bohemia, he instead was mainly left on his own. He found his idol Lou Reed distant and soon gone (Reed left the VU to go home to Long Island, working for his dad for a while). Richman hung around Warhol’s Factory but was merely tolerated. After a month, Richman went to Israel, where he only found a more intense degree of loneliness. Standing out in the desert, he realized “he had to start a band,” his friend (and bandmate) John Felice recalled. “He wanted people around him.”

modlovas

They were like the Velvet Underground, except with whimsy.

Bowie on the Modern Lovers.

When I started out, I was kind of lonely…when I had more success with girls, I had less need to be hostile, so the volume came down, and I needed happier songs with more melody.

Jonathan Richman, to Julia Sweeney, SPIN, February 1993.

“Pablo Picasso” was funny (Picasso as king greaser on the block, scoping out women while driving a Cadillac), envious, a piece of dating advice (be confident, don’t be a schmuck, get out of your head), prophetic—it’s a song that barely seems to exist as one (just jamming on one easy-to-play chord), a joke that goes on forever.

It was Richman’s low-rent take on a VU track like “Sister Ray”: a clattering vamp on E minor. On the demo, Cale establishes the drone on piano, offering a few variations as the song goes on; the drums (David Robinson) keep to one chugging pattern (Richman wanted the feel of a New York subway train), Jerry Harrison’s bassline is mainly one string bothered for four minutes; the guitar solos (Richman and Ernie Brooks) are screaming, whining jitters along the Em scale. “The original is a little dirgelike,” Bowie told Interview in 2003. “It doesn’t move much, which gives it a power, but it gives it the power of another era.”

In its various covers over the years, you can hear others trying to channel and variate its power. Cale* (officially the song’s debut performer, as his cover on Helen of Troy came out half a year before Modern Lovers) hardened the drone with a whinnying Chris Spedding guitar riff and shook up the percussion line—some tom fills, some little jumpy start-stops on guitar and bass (playing “Picasso” live, Cale kept things simpler, hanging the song back on a hammered Em chord). Coke-fueled and frustrated, Cale howled out the lyric: “never GOT called an ARSEHOLE—TOO BAD!!!…NOT LIKE YEEEW!!” The LA band Burning Sensations, for the soundtrack of Alex Cox’s Repo Man, changed the bassline, throwing in a bit of the “Peter Gunn Theme.” Television Personalities’ Daniel Treacy, centering “Picasso” on haunted-house piano and filling the mix with sirens, phone rings and wails, made it obsessive.

Bowie wanted “a more contemporary feel,” so he changed the lyric (no big deal: everyone from Iggy Pop to Richman himself already had done so) and added some chords. While Bowie’s “Picasso” still keeps for long stretches on a single chord (E-flat), Bowie threw in a new sequence (Bb-C#-G#-Bb-G#-F#) for a “refrain” (“swinging on the back porch, jumping off a big log…”) that’s has a touch of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” And he sang Richman’s verses over a three-chord shift: (F#)”girls could not resist his stare/(G#)Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole/(Eb) Not in New York!”

For an intro, Gerry Leonard added an out-of-phase, panned “Spanish” lead guitar,** which later gets a solo with glum backing by Bowie’s foghorn of a baritone saxophone. There’s a chirpy hook on Yamaha Digital piano that sounds like it was incidental music for a Dell desktop, and some scraping rhythm guitar dubs mixed right (possibly Bowie’s refurbished Supro). Sterling Campbell’s drum tracks were among those Bowie had remixed at Allaire Studios to get a “bigger,” reverb-laden sound.

Bowie took “Picasso” at a brisk tempo (Cale had always wanted Richman to play the song faster) and sang it like a carnival barker with long, loopy phrases—he seems to be always trying to get one step ahead of the song. He said it was meant to be Reality‘s equivalent to his cover of the Pixies’ “Cactus” on Heathen, but his fizzy “Picasso” was more like the latter album’s goofy take on “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship.” Filming a concert in Rotterdam in 2003, a fan kept panning into the audience during this song—you can see various people singing “never got called an ASSHOLE!” at the top of their lungs. “Pablo Picasso” was always an anthem in spirit. Bowie just gave it some amplification, some bits of sweetening, kicked it out into the world again.

It’s a fitting bookend to Bowie’s other painter song, “Andy Warhol.” The latter is Bowie peering into a man who isn’t there, the song of a chancer looking to pick up a few tricks. “Pablo Picasso” is a happy cartoon, a bit of advice from a man who knows. After all, you could replace “Pablo Picasso” with “David Bowie” in the lyric and it would work nearly as well. Good luck coming up with a better rhyme, though.

pablo

Recorded: (rhythm tracks, vocals) January-February 2003; (lead guitars, lead and backing vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Released 16 September 2003 on Reality.

Sources: Steven Lee Beeber’s The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk is good for Richman backstory; Joshua Clover’s “Terrorflu” (collected in Best Music Writing 2009) has a great one-page encapsulation on Richman’s “Roadrunner.” Any Richman interview that you come across is charming and funny.

* Cale was the band’s evangelist, distributing cassettes of the demo sessions to journalists and musicians in the mid-Seventies; it’s possible Bowie first heard the Modern Lovers this way.

** As you’ll see in the last clip, Richman also played cod-Spanish acoustic guitar solos when performing “Picasso” live in the 2000s.

Top: Tony Soprano, never called an asshole (well, sometimes). From Sopranos Season 4: “Mergers and Acquisitions,” first aired 3 November 2002; virile Pablo; Danny Fields, “Modern Lovers on the beach” ca. 1972.


Never Get Old

November 5, 2014

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Never Get Old.
Never Get Old (video).
Never Get Old (Vittel ad, edit).
Never Get Old (Today Show, 2003).
Never Get Old (Last Call With Carson Daly, 2003).
Never Get Old (Riverside Studio performance, 2003).
Never Get Old (Die Harald Schmidt Show, 2003).
Never Get Old (live, 2003).
Never Get Old (The Tonight Show, 2004).
Never Get Old (live, 2004).
Rebel Never Gets Old (2004).

Issued as a hook for Bowie’s first world tour in nearly 15 years, Reality became something else by the late 2000s: Bowie’s Last Album. With Bowie seemingly in retirement, there was a fair bit of fan resentment and bewilderment about this. Reality was really going to be the end? This was his Abbey Road, his Avalon? A “thrusty” (Bowie’s official adjective for it) album with a few covers? It would be as if he’d left the stage with Lodger, another oft-unloved record with which Reality has some affinities.

His return in 2013 loosed Reality from this trap. Now you can consider the record on more favorable terms: as an album whose songs were built to be blasted on stage, whose compositions were written quickly and fairly loosely, its tracks assembled like an Ikea table. The album of an older working artist, of a man used to himself, at an armistice with himself; someone happy not to take himself seriously (hope you’re happy, too). It’s the work of a man pissed off at the world but trying to keep it together for his kid’s sake. Not Bowie’s last album, but his latest album.

In interviews, Bowie hammered home that Reality lacked the thematic arc of Heathen, that there was “no through line” (he said this a half-dozen times) in the album, that it was just a collection of songs and a few covers pulled from a “Pin Ups 2” list. Yet as he said in the album’s promotional video, “going back on my word is part and parcel of what I do for you. Part of my entertaining factor is lying to you.”

There’s far more thematic structure in Reality than Bowie let on. Like Man Who Sold the World, it’s full of extreme figures—Picasso as a cock of the walk; a gluttonous rock star vampire (see below); a Dick Cheney stand-in—and diminished ones: disappointed wives and desperate husbands; various lonelyhearts. There’s death and scars and a long, shadowy sub-sequence in which David Jones buries David Bowie, one more time. And Bowie pulled all of this off lightly, even flippantly, as if he would keep doing it forever.

Some jokes, too. Take the Tezuka-eyed anime figure on the album cover: a record called Reality with a video-game avatar as its marquee artist. Another was the TV ad Bowie made for Vittel water (he had no qualms about this—“basic” TV was a primary means of promotion left to him, as radio and MTV wouldn’t play his new songs). Here he’s a chic brownstone owner (playing on the press’ current image of him) sharing house with his discarded personae. He walks off into the Soho morning, out for a coffee or a Bikram yoga session, leaving the old freaks back at home. He still looks great; he’s in on the joke.

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For some time, Bowie had been planning a major world tour, his first since Sound + Vision in 1990, once his daughter was old enough to travel regularly. The Heathen/Low-dominated sets of the 2002 tour needed an overhaul: some more oldies, but also some new, uptempo material. The fast pace and smaller clubs of his “Five Boroughs” NYC shows in October 2002 invigorated him. By year’s end, he was “percolating” with new songs, making demos via his home setup at the time: a Korg Trinity and a Seventies ARP Odyssey, a Korg Pandora effects processor and a lifetime’s accumulation of guitars (“I was back at home with the baby and wife and doing daily things, and I started writing immediately,” he told the Miami Herald). He got Tony Visconti back in the studio in January 2003.

At the time, Visconti was often renting the small Studio B in Philip Glass’ Looking Glass Studios on Broadway, walking distance from Bowie’s Soho home. So Bowie could keep to a domestic schedule—Internet binging or neighborhood walks in the early morning, breakfast with his daughter, off to the studio around 10 or 11 AM and back home by 7 PM for dinner. He could try out something on a keyboard at home, play it in the studio a few hours later, take the file home and listen to it that night.

Bowie and Visconti demoed about seven tracks (top melody sketches and scratch keyboard, bass and guitars over a click track), then began some overdubs, mainly guitar, vocals and keyboards. “Inevitably we’d hardly redo anything,” Visconti recalled to Sound on Sound. “I always record things carefully in the first place because I know we’re not going to redo them, and so a lot of the demo parts ended up on the final version.” (Visconti said “the bulk” of Reality was recorded into Logic Audio, with the Looking Glass Studio B board mainly used for monitoring tracks.)

After a break in which Bowie wrote and demoed more songs, he assembled a small group for rhythm tracks (cutting eight tracks in about eight days). It was just Bowie and Visconti, drummer Sterling Campbell and bassist/guitarist Mark Plati, all cramped into Studio B, with its 12′ x 10′ isolation booth. While Bowie could have rented the more spacious Studio A, he preferred being boxed in to get “a real tight New York sound,” as Visconti called it (Visconti also said he could better judge bass-end tones in the smaller studio).

This was the end of Plati’s work with Bowie. In the late Nineties, Plati had positioned himself as Bowie’s new right-hand man, and once Bowie and Reeves Gabrels parted company in 1999, Plati was ready to move up. But he hadn’t banked on the return of Tony Visconti to the fold, and the collapse of Toy (Plati’s baby) meant Visconti had the dominant hand. A source familiar with most of the musicians at the time noted Visconti had been gunning for Plati for a while and that Bowie had enjoyed the rivalry, as it bred good creative energy (he was an old hand at this, pitting Earl Slick against Carlos Alomar, Eno against Alomar, Reeves Gabrels against Mike Garson, etc.)

For Reality, Visconti recorded all the bass parts at the demo stage, often leaving Plati to have to trace over his lines (and Bowie preferred Visconti’s original takes on “The Loneliest Guy,” “Days” and “Fall Dog Bombs the Moon”). Visconti had looked a bit askance at Plati’s use of the Line 6 Bass Pod (a preamp that could let the player “dial up” the sound of whichever bass amp and cabinet they wanted), preferring to direct-inject his “very souped up ’67 [Fender] Precision” into the console.

Plati left before the Reality tour to take a gig with Robbie Williams, which he later regretted. He’d been used to Bowie fans, who were so devoted to the music that they knew every player’s name and backstory; now he was just an anonymous face backing a Star.

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By February 2003, a good chunk of the record was cut, though Bowie and Visconti weren’t happy with the drum sound, ultimately driving up to Allaire Studios near Woodstock, where they’d cut Heathen, to play Campbell’s drum tracks over Allaire’s massive ATC SCM150 monitors, then mixing that reverbed sound into Logic Audio.

For lead guitars, they brought in Earl Slick (cranking out his lines through an “enormous” Marshall stack), David Torn (charged with providing “atmospheres” as on Heathen, though he also got some lead riffs, like “New Killer Star”) and Gerry Leonard (mainly incidental work and solo spots, like the “Spanish” guitar on “Pablo Picasso”). Bowie also was keen to get into the mix some old Supro guitars that he’d bought on eBay, including a 1957 Dual Tone retrofitted by Flip Scipio and another patched-up 12-string Supro (heard on “Never Get Old,” among other tracks). Bowie also played scads of Korg Trinity, retrieved his old Selmer baritone saxophone for a few tracks and tried his hand at harmonica again (not heard since “Never Let Me Down” unless I’m (likely) forgetting something).

By May, Bowie and Visconti had pasted together a record, mixing sounds from a wide palette. Mike Garson recorded both synth and piano parts (the latter in California, with Garson putting the finished pieces into a ProTools file). Bowie typically sang three lead vocals for each track—one right after the rhythm tracks were cut, one midway through the sessions and one towards the start of mixing. Visconti synced them up (he’d made sure Bowie had used the same mic, a Manley Gold, for all takes) so that he could make a neat stitching job for a last vocal, following a line Bowie had sung in February with one he’d sung in May. And Bowie was in strong voice—having finally given up cigarettes, he’d recovered at least five semitones.

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You gotta stay young, man, you can never be old.

Mott the Hoople, “All the Way From Memphis.”

Unlike every other great genre of American pop, rock is all about being young or (if you are poor Mick Jagger) pretending to be young.

James Miller.

Wouldn’t that be fun, to age disgracefully?

Bowie, to the Sydney Morning Herald, 2003.

In 2001, the New York Press editor John Strausbaugh issued a manifesto, Rock ’til You Drop, attacking “colostomy rock” (the book had a cover photo of a wizened, grotesque-looking Mick Jagger): “Rock should simply not be played by 55-year-old men with triple chins wearing bad wighats, pretending to still be excited about playing songs they wrote 30 or 35 years ago…its prime audience should not be middle-aged, balding, jelly-bellied dads…Rock ‘n’ roll is not family entertainment.” (Bowie got a few brickbats, with Strausbaugh labeling him a “self-serving, egomaniacal, 52-year-old creep [conflating] all of rock ‘n’ roll with his own way-past-prime career”).

This was a sharper-pitched (Strausbaugh’s book is full of lurid Hogarth-esque descriptions of sadly aging musicians) version of an old argument: can a youth music grow old with dignity? Should there be some sort of Logan’s Run scenario where rock stars, after they hit 35, agree to kill themselves to spare us the sight of their aging? Bowie had avoided some of this by staying thin, keeping his hair and simply not seeming to age that much (even Strausbaugh admitted Bowie still looked hale in his 50s). But his sheer perseverance rankled Strausbaugh and other critics. Didn’t he know it was over? Wasn’t it a bit embarrassing, all the Internet Bowiebanc Omikron drum’n’bass business?

“Never Get Old” is Bowie’s response (did he read the book? you never know). Fuck you: I am the aging letch you hate, and there’s nothing you can do about it. “It’s a rather silly song,” he told Kurt Orzeck. “It’s kind of [about] a petulant 56-year-old.” To the Sun, Bowie added that “there’s the image of a petulant rock singer sitting in a half-darkened room saying, ‘I’m not gonna get old.’ I thought it was a funny image and I had to write it before someone else my age did.”

After all, this sort of “get off the stage, old man” warfare was in great part intra-generational: it was late Baby Boomers attacking early Baby Boomers. “Today we’re a generation of angry old men,” Bowie told Der Stern. He had a three-year old daughter for whom Joe Strummer, Johnny Cash, Lady Miss Keir and Trent Reznor would all be one great jumble, a collective past that would be as easy to pare and remix as he’d done for his latest album. But playing an aging, vain Baby Boomer egomaniacal creep was too juicy a role not to take on.

Singing “Never Get Old” was part of a growing cheekiness, a lack of reverence for his legend. Bowie had become grand enough of a monument that he could scrawl on it. Around this time he cut a remake of “Changes” with Butterfly Boucher, where he sang “look out, you rock ‘n rollers—pretty soon you’re gonna get older!” with gusto and happy irony. He recut “Rebel Rebel” as an aging rocker still playing at youth, then had it mashed up into “Never Get Old” for a tawdry single that would have made the likes of Strausbaugh retch.

never_get_old

“Never Get Old” is a bipolar song. The E major refrains are hectoring and bloated, with their set of whining guitars stuck in second gear. A grotesque rock star refuses to leave the table, instead filling his belly with more: cash, food, drugs, women (live, Bowie sang “never gonna be enough bullets!” while making a gun shape with his fingers: you’re never gonna be able to kill all of us). Underneath the latter half of the refrains is a grunting, moaning distorted bass figure: the gurgling stomach of the singer, or the factory work keeping his enterprise going.

He’s also feeding on his past. The winding verse melody is similar to that of “Karma Man,” while there’s a pun on old glories (“never gonna get Low“) and maybe even an Iggy Pop nod (“street of life” calls back to the “street of chance” of Pop/Bowie’s “Baby“). And not just his past. The last vocal tag, a soaring bit by Gail Ann Dorsey and Catherine Russell, mirrors the close of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Yet the verses and pre-choruses have none of this cheek. They’re built on tentative shifts up and down, like a man struck with doubts on a stairway. The verse starts on G major (“better take care”), sharpens the chord (“I think I’d better go better”) and in a breath makes it natural again (“get a room better take”) then moves down to F major (“care of me”). The second time round’s a lower descent, to E minor (..”history”). The pre-chorus does the same moves with C major (C: “forever,” C#: “this feeling that we’re going to be,” C: “living until the,” B-flat: “end of time”), then in a classic “really, Bowie?” progression, there’s a jarring shift from Bb to G# (“head hangs low”) to E-flat (“all over”) to E major to clear the path for the chorus.

These qualified, shaky movements, paced by a rhythm guitar (Torn?) that mainly nags at its G string, underscores a lyric marked by regret and loneliness. A man locks himself up in his room (painted blue, blue electric blue?). He goes to the movies, like the mousy-haired girl of “Life on Mars?,” hoping that when the star turns around for his close-up, he’ll acknowledge the little man in the stalls. The moon floats along with its stolen light (its airy progress the little piano break). The refrain is a lie.

A while ago, someone wrote on the “Space Oddity” post, arguing with my choice of words. I’d written “when Bowie dies” and the commenter took me to task: “surely you meant if?” It’s a wonderful protest, and a true one. It seems wrong to write that Bowie will ever die. He can’t die, he won’t die: we just won’t let him.

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Recorded: (rhythm tracks, vocals) January-February 2003, (lead guitars, lead and backing vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Released 16 September 2003 on Reality (ISO/Columbia COL 512555 2/ CK 90576, UK #3, US #29). A video for the song is included on the DualDisc version, one of the several supplemental editions of Reality, whose numbers also include the 2-CD version (with bonus tracks “Fly,” “Queen of the Tarts” and a remade “Rebel Rebel”), the “tour” version (which had a bonus DVD with the LP sequence performed live at Riverside Studio, plus “Waterloo Sunset” as a bonus (the Japanese CD also had the latter track)) and the SACD, which had Visconti’s Dolby 5.1 mixes for all tracks.

“Rebel Never Gets Old,” a mash-up assembled by Mark Vidler ca. March 2004, was issued as a single in the EU later that year (ISO-Columbia COL 674971) and also was available as an iTunes download.

Sources: Of particular help (to this and upcoming entries) was the marvelously detailed piece “Recording Reality” by Richard Buskin in the October 2003 issue of Sound on Sound. All technical details come from this article.

Top: Damiano, “Rainbow [Gathering] in Italia, 2002”; art for Reality (photos: Frank W. Ockenfels; design: Jonathan Barnbrook; illustrations: Rex Ray).