1. The first sound that you hear, creeping in via Ken Scott’s faders, is Woody Woodmansey’s kick drum and closed hi-hat, in 3/4 time, with a snare hit (flutter) on the third beat, then (wham!) on the downbeat. Woodmansey later describes it as putting “hopelessness into a drumbeat.”
2.This is going to be something new…no one has ever seen anything like this before….it’s going to be entertainment. That’s what’s missing in pop music now—entertainment….You can’t remain at the top for five years and still be outrageous. You become accepted and the impact has gone. Me? I’m fantastically outrageous. Bowie, June 1972.
3. “Five Years,” one of Bowie’s last Sixties songs, could have been sung at his Arts Lab in Beckenham–you can imagine his folk trio Feathers doing it. It’s an acting troupe sketch, with scenario by Liverpudlian poet Roger McGough, place setting of the Market Square, Aylesbury, location of the Friars Club (we’re pushing through, not pushing ahead), and various mimes (“queer” vomiting, soldier with broken arm, cop kneeling to priest, girl drinking milkshake).
4. Instruments stagger in. Double-tracked autoharp and piano (ZING! “pushing through the market square”). Trevor Bolder on bass, making interjections between lines (e.g., the octave jump after the news guy tells us the bad news). Bowie on 12-string acoustic guitar (“a girl my age”) shadowed by Mick Ronson-arranged strings (“went off her head”). Ronson’s electric guitar only appears on the refrain’s fourth go-round (cued by a “what a surprise!”). The verses of “Five Years” seem like they will never end, until, after curling into a ball, they become a doomsday pub singalong refrain. Five repeats in all, the rest of the song, which ends in screams, then fades away. Dennis MacKay, engineer on Ziggy: “Bowie’s screaming and what you hear on that song, the emotion is for real. I was in shock because he was also hitting every note spot on.”
5.It’s work generally in an atmosphere that’s five years behind. There’s so much of it that seems to represent today, but it isn’t, in fact: it’s using references and feelings and emotions from a few years back. Bowie on rock music, 1980.
6. “My brain hurt like a warehouse.” Ziggy is a work of Bowie writing about work. “Busting up my brains for the words.” “I’m so wiped out with things as they are.” “I felt like an actor.” Much of it is heard second-hand. Tapes, transmissions, backstage stories (“boy could he play guitar”). A record plays somewhere deep in the building, reduced by walls and floors to muffled basslines, ghost voices, the occasional piercing guitar note. Songs drift past on the radio. A band, sitting in a club long after hours, has gotten it together and can play all night, but few are there to hear them.
7.I thought of my brother and wrote ‘Five Years’. Bowie, 1975.
8. “Soul Love” again opens with Woodmansey alone, but he’s cheerier now. Hi-hat flourish, then rim-shots and kick drum, chased with handclaps and conga.
9. “All I have is my love of love, and love is not loving.” Love as infestation (sweeping over cross and baby), as a priest talking to the empty sky.
10. Bowie’s baritone saxophone moves the action along in the second verse, then takes over, upturning the top melody and spooling it out, following a lengthy sloping phrase with a sharply arcing one, ringing in the key change.
11.David Bowie and Marc Bolan were Sixties people who made it late…they were that much more grown up and that much more experienced…They’d been consuming media for a long time and, on a smaller scale, they’d been dealing with media already…their Sixties forebears had been making it up as they went along. The major work of art was actually the media events. The records and shows were part of the superstructure. Charles Shaar Murray.
12. The key to “Moonage Daydream” isn’t Ronson’s opening chords or Bowie’s opening blast of “I’m an all-ih-ga-torrr!” It’s the diminishing that follows them. “Moonage” is carried for the rest of its verse on Bowie’s 12-string acoustic, augmented by Ronson muting his Les Paul strings; it’s as if a dance floor has cleared out. The heavy guitar is there in corners, rarely where one expects it. The countermelodies in the refrain are low backing vocals and piano; the solo is a duet of recorder and baritone saxophone. Ziggy keeps rock at a distance, rationing its appearances, rehearsing for a play that we will never see.
13. Then, as “Moonage Daydream” draws to its close, Ronson steps into the center, boring through, pushing out, rocketing away.
14. The image of Ziggy Stardust in shuffle. The LP cover photo, of Bowie in a post-Hunky Dory look, still with mousy hair (tinted blonde), now in a jump suit. George Underwood’s illustration, used for early LP and tour advertisements: a sexualized Laughing Gnome. The Ziggy of the Top of the Pops “Starman,” a variation on Peter Cook’s Satan in Bedazzled (“Drimble Wedge and the Vegetation“). In late 1972 shows, Ziggy as a pantomime figure, an ominous Ghost of Christmas Present. There’s the post-Japan imperial Ziggy, a space empress. His wasted, gaunt final edition on the 1980 Floor Show, a shade without a corpse.
15.They tell me the next record is going to be the big one. RCA are very confident. Kenneth Pitt, Bowie’s ex-manager, to George Tremlett, early 1972.
16. The strings of “Starman”—graceful cello ascension on the title line, high elaborations on Bowie’s la-la-las in the outro. Ronson used Cilla Black records as a primer for his arrangements: likely contenders include her mid-’60s heartbreakers “I’ve Been Wrong Before” (tensed strings take flight in the bridge) and the grand ballroom sweeps in “Love’s Just a Broken Heart.”
17. The verses are done in confidence: Bowie, You, and the Starman, communicating through radio receivers as if they’re walkie-talkies. Music played in a darkened bedroom, trying not to wake your parents.
18. On The Crown, dour Princess Anne sings the closing “lar lar la-lars” of “Starman” as she strides through a blacked-out Buckingham Palace. With its Judy Garland steals and clopping handclaps, it’s a song one can imagine the royals enjoying.
19. Lost pasts dept., part one:RCA PRESENTS DAVID BOWIE’S NEW RECORD: “ROUND AND ROUND.” Look out, you rock and rollers! The 15 December 1971 master was: Side 1: Five Years/ Soul Love/ Moonage Daydream/ Round and Round/ Amsterdam. Side 2: Hang Onto Yourself/ Ziggy Stardust/ Velvet Goldmine/ Star/ Lady Stardust.
20. It originally started as a concept album, but it kind of got broken up because I found other songs I wanted to put in the album which wouldn’t have fitted into the story of Ziggy…so at the moment it’s a little fractured and a little fragmented…so anyway what you have there on that album when it does finally come out is a story which doesn’t really take place…it’s just a few little scenes from the life of a band called Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars…who could feasibly be the last band on Earth—it could be within the last five years of Earth…I’m not at all sure. Because I wrote it in such a way that I just dropped the numbers into the album in any order that they cropped up. It depends in which state you listen to it in…I’ve had a number of meanings out of the album, but I always do. Once I’ve written an album, my interpretations of the numbers in that album are totally different afterwards than the time that I wrote them and I find that I learn a lot from my own albums about me. Bowie, radio interview, February 1972.
21. Having knocked “It Ain’t Easy” a lot over the years, I’ll try to make a case for it. The album needs a chunk of early Seventies Rawk to counter its flightier numbers. Despite being a Hunky Dory outtake, “It Ain’t Easy” still fits better in the LP sequence than “Amsterdam” (too folkie) or “Round and Round” (too scrappy). “Sweet Head” was never a contender; “Velvet Goldmine,” too magnificently singular. “It Ain’t Easy” is the communal closer to the LP side, the same role as “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” on the flip. When Bowie had performed it in 1971, he gave the verses to Geoff MacCormack, George Underwood and Dana Gillespie to sing (Gillespie is on the Ziggy take, as is Rick Wakeman on harpsichord). If five years is all we’ve got, spend them with your friends.
22. Still, “Velvet Goldmine.”
23. Lost pasts dept., part two; Bowie, to GQ, 2000: “I’ve pulled out a good deal of scraps that were never used at the time [on Ziggy Stardust]. Some of them are only 30 seconds long, but I’m extending those. I thought, ‘OK, is this crap and is that the reason why it never appeared on the first one or is it OK and should I try and do things with it?’ So I’ve taken those six tracks and thrashed them out and made them into songs that will support the original. One’s called the ‘Black Hole Kids’ which is fascinating.”
24. The demo of “Lady Stardust” is, ever since I first heard it on Ryko’s reissue in 1990, the song’s canonical recording for me. The strength of Bowie’s singing, the intimate grandeur of the track. It’s to the point that whenever I hear the Ziggy version, everything sounds off, especially Bowie’s phrasing. It’s become a retrospective outtake.
25. I knew someone who was in a band in the Nineties. They got signed by a major label, cut a record. Then, as often happens, there was a shift in label management, or the promo staff thought it wouldn’t hit on radio: something went wrong, a few bad rolls of the dice. The record was shelved, never to be released; the band split up. But during this time, they worked with Mick Ronson. One night, without prompting, Ronson sat at a piano and played “Lady Stardust” for the band, letting the song roll through him.
26. I guess it’s kind of that art school kind of posturing that the Brits usually have. And it was people like myself and Roxy Music that had a different agenda about taking up music. I think we all were kind of – well, maybe – I can’t speak for Roxy, of course. But some of us were failed artists or reluctant artists. You know, the choices were either, for most Brit musicians at that point, painting or making music. And I think we opted for music: one, because it was more exciting. And two, you could actually earn a living at it. Bowie, 2002.
27. We’re as far away now from Ziggy Stardust as it was from Ulysses and The Waste Land, from Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin at their youthful peaks. As a child in the mid-1980s, I thought Ziggy, what I knew of it, seemed old and weird. Its film clips (bits from Ziggy Stardust: the Motion Picture and Mick Rock’s promos were pressed into service on occasion on Friday Night Videos) were like scenes from some ancient, decadent world. It was hard to reconcile Bowie of the then-present, a genial, medium-cool figure singing “Blue Jean” and “Dancing in the Street” and at Live Aid, with the jaundiced extraterrestrial in 16mm, this hollow-cheeked specter.
28. “Star”: A kid in her bedroom sings to the mirror; a school band struggles to get the song right for once (the drummer always fumbles the transitions) before the talent show. The opening number of the musical, actors spilling on stage, playing to the back rows. Soooooo exciting! to play the part!
29. The apparent reference to Nye Bevan “try[ing] to save the nation” in the second verse is one of Bowie’s more obscure lyrical nods, at least for non-UK listeners. Someone ages ago claimed to me it was actually a reference to ELO’s Bev Bevan, who I didn’t realize had been so ambitious.
30. Nickelodeon backing vocals in “Star”—air-raid siren “oooh wahs”; ch-ch-ch, ch-ch, cha-la-la-la!; you know that I couuuuld–end in Bowie’s ping-ponging hums and a whispered “just watch me now!”
31. “On stage when you are performing you are in total control. It is like a demon or spirit taking over. You have a congregation and you are the high priest.” But rock and roll doesn’t really fascinate him. “It is hardly a vocation.” Ziggy Stardust was conceived as a film. No one would make it, so he turned it into a record instead. David Lewin, “Will the Real David Bowie Stand Up?” Sunday Mirror, 20 July 1975.
32. How restrained “Hang Onto Yourself” is. The one-two opening punch of the riff is kept in check; the refrain’s an insinuation. Trevor Bolder’s bass as the focal point. Even Ronson’s slide guitar packs off without too much fuss.
33. “Layin’ on electric dreams.”
34. The guttural backing vocals that surge under “honey not my money” or “bitter comes out better” make those sections of the track sound as if the tape’s flaking apart.
35. Few have ever been in love with the sound of this album. Too tinny, too murky, too weedy, a rock record on which the rock has been boxed off. Audiophile message boards have hosted decades’ worth of battles over which pressing, which reissue, which remix salvages it. There will forever be some magnificent ideal Ziggy waiting for the right engineer to, at last, set it free.
36. The name, distilled from Bowie’s American trip of early 1971: the wild boy (Iggy Pop) and the wild man (The Legendary Stardust Cowboy). The character, bits taken from Nik Cohn’s chaos incarnate pop star Johnny Angelo and, as per Bowie legend, the acid-damaged Vince Taylor. Ziggy as a commemorative coin minted from the great rock ‘n’ roll dead: Brian Jones, Eddie Cochran, Hendrix, Morrison, Buddy Holly, countless more in the years since. Yet this misses Bowie’s point that Ziggy wasn’t supposed to be some great charismatic pop singer, but someone chosen, possibly at random, by “black hole jumpers” as their vessel. A middling performer, working through yet another set in yet another half-filled room, complaining to his manager that the latest single, “Liza Jane” or “I Dig Everything,” has gone nowhere.
37. While Ronson gives a grand ornamentation to “Ziggy Stardust”—the crunching chromatic bass figure under “Spiders from Mars” in the verse, the harmonics on “became the special man,” the vicious chords in the refrains—the memory may only recall him playing the main riff over and over again. The riff is Bowie’s version of Handel’s “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”: each time it appears, the rest of the band stops to pay homage.
38. Like the New Testament gospels, the story of Ziggy is redacted from different, contradictory narrators. The timeline’s murky: a legendary past shot through with future premonitions. “He was the Nazz,” Bowie sings: Lord Buckley’s name for Christ, the Nazarene (is “god-given ass” a pun?). The Nazz never did nothin’ simple, Buckley would say. When He laid it, He laid it.
39. The opening riff of “Suffragette City”: played on Les Paul and 12-string acoustic guitar, soon bolstered by a monster ARP 2500 that got hauled down from another floor at Trident, all sounding as if they’re about to tear into Frankie Ford’s “Sea Cruise.”
41. Ronson’s pick scratch as “wham bam!” hits. The ARP doubling Bolder’s bass; the bright rock ‘n’ roll rumble on the Trident Studios’ Bechstein. Woodmaney’s snare fills on the title phrase. How the front-mixed acoustic guitar works more as a percussion line (Ken Scott: “I wasn’t too into cymbals back then so I mixed them low”).
42. “Suffragette City” is the first Bowie song that I ever heard, or at least the first one I remember being a “David Bowie song.” Via a grade school friend whose sister, in college at the time, would come home on holiday breaks with the cool records. The nasally presence, the push of the track—it sounded diabolical.
43. Bowie atlas, with Suffragette City as sordid port town; its sister city across the water, Amsterdam; Hunger City, casting its long shadow on the plains. Oxford Town beyond the hills. Berlin, Jareth’s Labyrinth, Amlapura, Crack City. Freecloud Mountain to the north.
44.I dream about him a lot, but they’re always horrid dreams ’cause he always dies in the end. Teenage fan of pop idol Steven Shorter (Paul Jones), in Privilege (1967).
45.“What do you think?” she asked Peter. “If you believe,” he shouted to them, “clap your hands; don’t let Tink die.” Many clapped. Some didn’t. A few beasts hissed. The clapping stopped suddenly; as if countless mothers had rushed to their nurseries to see what on earth was happening; but already Tink was saved. First her voice grew strong, then she popped out of bed, then she was flashing through the room more merry and impudent than ever. She never thought of thanking those who believed, but she would have liked to get at the ones who had hissed.
JM Barrie, Peter Pan (1904).
46.Gimme your hands!
47. In his hand-written lyrics for “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” Bowie wrote “the water-wall is calling” in the first verse. Robin Mayhew, his tour sound engineer, was asked to proofread lyrics while visiting Gem Music one day, and thought he heard Bowie singing “wall-to-wall,” changing the line on the lyric sheet without telling Bowie (listen to the original—Bowie’s almost certainly singing ‘waw-ter wall’). “Wall-to-wall” has been the official lyric ever since. In the Bowie spirit, the mistake works as well as, if not better than, the intention.
48. Throughout Ziggy, horn lines are masqueraded by the ARP, or delivered alone by Bowie. Now, for the finale, Ronson at last scores a brass section—trumpets, trombones, tenor and bari saxes—as if inviting the neighbors in for a party.
49. Ronson’s won!-der-fuls towards the close.
50. The last thing that you hear: celli and double basses, a beat after everyone else departs, playing one last D-flat chord. An album that begins with a solitary drummer ends with four musicians bowing in unison. Oh no, love, you’re not alone.
Essentials: The Ziggy Stardust Companion; Mark Paytress, Classic Rock Albums: Ziggy Stardust; The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust: Off the Record (International Music Publications Ltd.)
David was born on 8th January . The midwife said to me, “this child has been on earth before,” and I thought that was rather an odd thing to say, but the midwife seemed quite adamant.
Margaret “Peggy” Burns Jones.
The very first memory I have is of being left in my pram in the hallway of 40 Stansfield Road [Brixton], facing the stairs—they were dark and shadowy.
If there was anything that caught his ear, he would tell everyone to be quiet and listen, and then fling himself about to the music.
So many people are born in a trap. And they don’t seem to have the courage to want to get out. And it’s so simple, really, so simple.
Gurney Slade (Anthony Newley), The Strange World of Gurney Slade.
So many of the things I wanted to do come from books.
He didn’t actually go out very much but preferred to stay home. I’d often invite him to a party and he would often say, “No, I’m going to stay in, I’ve got some work to do.”
David knew all the songs by heart and in his peculiar way could sing every song in our set [but] none of us liked his voice at all.
Alan Dodds, The Kon-Rads.
He looked like a young waiter who had blown his first check on a bad haircut.
John Bloom, recalling Davie Jones and the King Bees’ performance at Bloom’s birthday party, April 1964.
One of the ways we would write was I would bring my fingers down on the keyboard and David would say, “What’s that? Hold that chord.” And we would write something around it. I found it hard getting my fingers used to those chords, he never made things easy.
Denis Taylor, lead guitarist, The Lower Third.
You can’t give all you have to take something back.
He had written a lot of songs, they were not Rock and Roll but they were very good, very musical and they had unusual shapes, nothing like the current Top 20 stuff.
John “Hutch” Hutchinson, on first working with Bowie in The Buzz, 1966 (from Bowie & Hutch).
Now you know I’m not the warmest performer on stage, and I never have been…I’ve never felt comfortable talking on stage. With ‘Diamond Dogs’ I even wanted to have the band in an orchestra pit.
David, you’re working with a backing group, The Buzz. Have you always worked with them? As David Bowie, yes. I’ve always been with them, for about six months. Why do you say ‘as David Bowie’? I was someone else before that.
Radio London interview with Bowie at the Marquee Club, 1966.
I want to act. I’d like to do character parts. I think it takes a lot to become somebody else. It takes some doing.
Bowie, to Melody Maker, 26 February 1966.
He would go down to Carnaby Street and get himself kitted in a fancy outfit. You would never see him walking around like a slob. He didn’t do slob.
Dana Gillespie, to Dylan Jones.
Lo, Palmer’s Green has been disrupted by a clown and two friends. Twenty-four people walked out the first night. Most of them were coppers off duty. One old man sat and read a newspaper: The Sketch, I think. And a couple of nice ladies talked about their babies, bingo, and bras in Row E. Lindsay [Kemp] was pissed, Jack [Birkett] was ill and I just sang.
Bowie, letter to Hermione Farthingale, 1967.
I’m not quite sure what We’re supposed to do So, I’ve been writing just for you
Bowie: What do you think you’ll be doing in ten or twenty years’ time? Writing—and you? Bowie: I might be writing, too. I think of myself more as a writer than a musician. I shall be a millionaire by the time I’m thirty, and I’ll spend the rest of my life doing other things.
Interview by George Tremlett in Ken Pitt’s apartment, 39 Manchester St., London, 17 November 1969.
David Bowie is 22 years old, thin, with a halo of fair hair, a delicately soft face and two cold eyes. One is pale kitten blue and the other green, and it makes it rather disconcerting to talk to him.
Penny Valentine, Disc, 11 October 1969.
I haven’t got a clue why Visconti didn’t like the song. The fact is, Mercury didn’t have any major acts with the exception of Rod Stewart, who at that point wasn’t a major act anyway…they took Bowie on specifically because of “Space Oddity.” They’d heard the demo and in those days a gimmick was a big deal, and people who had gimmicks were taken more seriously than those who hadn’t.
Gus Dudgeon, 1993.
I wasn’t interested in the far future, spaceships and all that. Forget it. I was interested in the evolving world, the world of hidden persuaders, of the communications landscape developing, of mass tourism, of the vast conformist suburbs dominated by television—that was a form of science fiction, and it was already here.
J.G. Ballard, 2008.
With The Man Who Sold The World I wanted to work in some kind of strange micro-world where the human element had been taken out, where we were dealing with a technological society. That world [was] an experimental playground where you could do dangerous things without anybody taking too many risks, other than ideas risks….It was all family problems and analogies, put into science-fiction form.
Bowie, 1993; 1976.
The song breathes out the whole sweep of postwar British culture before the Beatles turned it on its head—the slow, squalid sink of pointless desires caught in John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, Colin MacInnes’s Absolute Beginners, Tom Courtenay and Julie Christie in Billy Liar, Nell Dunn’s Up the Junction—and places it squarely in the present. It’s a drama of ordinary life you can’t turn away from, because you’re seeing a life that you know, that you’re living, thrown up on the screen of the song. The quietest tinkling piano begins it; at the end, the piano trails off into a huge, harsh crescendo of movie-finale strings—hero and heroine clasped in each other’s arms, wind propelling them into their future—as if the notes can’t remember the song.
The day will come when David Bowie is a star and the crushed remains of his melodies are broadcast from Muzak boxes in every elevator and hotel lobby in town.
Nancy Erlich, New York Times, 11 July 1971.
You had to make the two sides of the album roughly the same length. While parts were being worked out, I would spend time working out the timings and putting songs together so I could suggest which order would work best…Up to a point, the running order was dictated by the LP format. The whole idea about the concept album thing…there are some songs that fit together on a certain story. But I dispute the fact that it’s a concept album, because why would you have “It Ain’t Easy,” which was recorded for Hunky Dory?
Ken Scott, on The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars.
Writers like George Steiner had nailed the sexy term “post-culture” and it seemed a jolly good idea to join up the dots of rock…Everything was up for grabs. If we needed any truths we could construct them ourselves. The main platform would be, other than shoes, “we are the future, now” and the way of celebrating that was to create it by the only means at our disposal.
Bowie, introduction to Moonage Daydream, 2002.
Ziggy was this kind of megalomaniac little prophet figure who came down to tell us it was all over. We were never quite sure whether he meant it or not, whether he was from outer space or not.
Bowie, on 20/20, 1980.
As David Bowieappears, the child dies. The vision is profound – a sanity heralding the coming of consciousness from someone who – at last! – transcends our gloomy coal-fire existence. David Bowie is detached from everything, yet open to everything; stripped of the notion that both art and life are impossible. He is quite real, impossibly glamorous, fearless, and quite British. How could this possibly be?
How would you describe yourself? Bowie: Partly enigmatic, partly fossil.
Backstage interview at Carnegie Hall, 28 September 1972.
Among certain more affluent hippies Bowie is apparently the symbol of a kind of thrilling extremism, a life-style (the word is for once permissible) characterised by sexual omnivorousness, lavish use of stimulants— particularly cocaine, very much an élitist drug, being both expensive and galvanising—self-parodied narcissism, and a glamorously early death. To dignify this unhappy outlook with such a term as “nihilist” would, of course, be absurd; but Bowie does appear to be a new focus for the vague, predatory, escapist reveries of the alienated young. Although Bowie himself is unlikely to last long as a cult, it is hard to believe that the feelings he has aroused or aggravated will vanish along with the fashion built round him.
Martin Amis, The New Statesman, 6 July 1973.
The Sixties are definitely not with us anymore…the change into the music of the Seventies is starting to come with people like David Bowie and Lou Reed…they don’t expect to live more than thirty years and they don’t care. And they don’t care. They’re in the Seventies. What I’m tryin’ to say is these people like Lou Reed and Davie Booie or Bowie, however you pronounce it, those folks—I think they got somethin’ there, heh heh. Take a walk on the wild side!
Neil Young, 1973.
Living in Dagenham, the appeal was that if you dyed your hair or had a little bit of make-up or wore a bangle, you’d get the piss taken out of you, but because it was David Bowie you didn’t. You could dress up like that…It was so obvious that girls liked it—thank you David Bowie! And good music to shag to, I have to say.
Steve Ignorant, of Crass (whose name came from “the kids were just crass” in “Ziggy Stardust”).
“Lady Grinning Soul”—to have all those runs on the piano, I was practicing eight hours a day at the time, year after year. You can’t play like that if you haven’t done tons of repetition….then when we did “Time” they found that truly humorous, and David being almost like a Broadway singer and knowing all the German stuff, everything about it was David Bowie. But I was playing the piano how I think he would have played if he could play at my level. He could play, he played well, but it was very basic piano. I think, if he had my chops, that’s what he would have done.
Mike Garson, on Aladdin Sane.
The ego is the instrument of living in this world. If the ego is broken up or destroyed…then the person may be exposed to other worlds, “real” in different ways.
R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience.
I was already a 13-year-old fan when Diamond Dogs came out…Diamond Dogs is not a coherent story, but I’m not sure I wanted a coherent story. The inner sleeve’s photographs of a broken city, as if seen in a damaged kaleidoscope, aren’t coherent either, but they paint a place…it’s my favourite album because it was mine—in a way no other Bowie album had been, or would be again…because it contained complex lyrics on Sweet Thing and Candidate that made me feel like I was being shown a 12-hour drama through a letterbox slot; because the opening monologue pronounces the album unashamed science fiction; because it sent me to the school library aged 13 to borrow 1984, back then only a decade away; because the track listing on the cassette was all jumbled for reasons of time, so that story, whatever it was, and that sequence was what I first encountered and responded to, built up in my head, which meant that it would be another 32 years until I realised I could reorder the track listing on my computer and listen to Diamond Dogs in a way that felt right to me.
Diamond Dogs, as I remember it at the time, was trying to accomplish some great mockery of rock ‘n’ roll. It seemed to be part of my manifesto at the time, I don’t know why.
It solidified..what I wanted to do with Devo. We’d spent way too much time smoking pot talking about ideas & doing nothing about it. Here was someone who’d taken the time to do it for real.
Jerry Casale, on seeing the Diamond Dogs tour in Cleveland, June 1974.
I ran to his room and looked at the thin white man singing on Soul Train. Bowie was wearing a dark suit with a light shirt. He was moving very slowly, as though he were high or drunk or too cool to sweat. “He sing ‘Fame'”? I said. We loved that song. “I thought he was black.” We stared at the television as though we didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “I’m trippin’,” Keith kept saying. “I am really trippin’.” “Me too,” I said. “He white?” “I don’t care,” Keith said. “He bad. He a bad dude.”…Who was this man who wasn’t anything close to what he looked and sounded like? Who let him do that? Who let him be white and weird and on Soul Train?
Dana Johnson, Elsewhere, California.
Plane comes into view, loud, knocks letters out. Hand places “The Young American.” Major Tom walks into vision. The letters drop and he passes the camera…We are in [an] aircraft and slide back to passenger section to find Major Tom watching English news TV of his sensational send-off.
Bowie, film scenario, 1974.
David played “Station to Station” to me at Cherokee. When he played that…it was cinematic in every respect…I was amazed how he could come up with that, having been in complete cocaine psychosis.
Glenn Hughes (Deep Purple).
The tree-top at last! Here we are at the very apex of the Middle Pillar where we can make no further progress on the Tree of Life unless we leave it altogether into the Nothing above, or fall back to Malkuth and start all over again.
William G. Gray, The Ladder of Lights (1968).
I walked out on Bowie’s show. I thought it was dreadful. I got turned off by that whole ego trip. That ‘here I am, baby, and isn’t it wonderful to actually be able to see me, I’m the thin white duke’ bit. What is all that about? I could call myself the fat pink pulp, but I don’t.
Elton John, 1976.
“The first space-rock hero of the 70s,” as David has been called, has finished a book of “semi-autobiographical” short stories called “The Return of the Thin White Duke,” which will be published at Christmas—by his own company, natch.
The Los Angeles Times, 24 July 1975.
And all of the imbeciles and cretins, who had been delegated to some other imperceivable providence of their own, have tumbled and fallen from the sky, soared spouting from the seas. The catastrophic menage is ripping and torturing their release from the soul of OM. And the rock bands just dirge and provacate [sic] the malforms into the frenzid waltz of [infinity symbol].
Excerpt from Chapter One of The Return of the Thin White Duke.
Because of the dark glasses Bryce could not see Newton’s eyes, but it seemed to him as though Newton were looking everywhere. “Easy come, easy go, Nathan,” he said. Newton began to tremble. His angular body began to lean forward and the felt hat fell silently on the table, showing his chalk-white hair. Then his Anthean head fell on to his spindly Anthean arms and Bryce saw that he was crying…
The bartender had come over and when Bryce looked up the bartender said, “I’m afraid this fellow needs help.”
“Yes,” Bryce said. “Yes, I guess he does.”
Walter Tevis, The Man Who Fell to Earth.
In this movie, the forlorn, limp hero-David Bowie—a stranger on earth, doesn’t have a human sex drive. He isn’t even equipped for it: naked, he’s as devoid of sex differentiation as a child in sleepers. When he splashes down in a lake in the Southwest and drinks water like a vampire gulping down his lifeblood, one is drawn in, fascinated by the obliqueness and by the promise of an erotic sci-fi story. It is and it isn’t. The stranger has come to earth to obtain the water that will save his people, who are dying from drought, but he is corrupted, and then is so damaged that he can’t return…The plot, about big-business machinations, is so uninvolving that one watches Bowie traipsing around—looking like Katharine Hepburn in her transvestite role in Sylvia Scarlett—and either tunes out or allows the film, with its perverse pathos, to become a sci-fi framework for a sex-role-confusion fantasy. The wilted stranger can be said to represent everyone who feels misunderstood, everyone who feels sexually immature or “different,” everyone who has lost his way, and so the film is a gigantic launching pad for anything that viewers want to drift to.
Pauline Kael, review of The Man Who Fell To Earth, The New Yorker, 8 November 1976.
[Bowie’s] done something that I should have done but I backed out of doing, which is just split the album into two halves and said “Well, here’s all the fast songs—and here’s all the other things that I also like.” I’ve got this same problem coming up again now. Because it’s even more polarized. I’ve got on the one hand some really manic songs. Oh dear, they sound so bizarre I don’t know what I’m gonna do with them. They sound a bit like Captain Beefheart or my version of modern jazz or something like that.
Brian Eno, NME interview, 27 November 1976.
On this album David Bowie achieves the ultimate image-illusion available to an individual working within the existing cultural forms of the West.
THE FIRST IMPRESSION Low imparts to the listener is that he is somehow hearing it sideways.
Ian MacDonald, Low review, NME, 22 January 1977.
It’s decadent in the sense that it glamourises and glorifies passive decay and I don’t give a shit about how clever it may or may not be—David never makes minor errors, only fundamental ones—it stinks of artfully counterfeited spiritual defeat and futility and emptiness.
We’re low enough already, David.
Give us a high or else just swap tapes with Eno by post and leave those of us who’d rather search for solutions than lie down and be counted to try and find ourselves instead of lose ourselves.
You’re a wonderful person but you’ve got problems.
Charles Shaar Murray, Low review, NME, 22 January 1977.
From station to station back to Düsseldorf city Meet Iggy Pop and David Bowie.
Kraftwerk, “Trans-Europe Express.”
We went to East Berlin across Checkpoint Charlie where you have to show your passport to the East German police. David’s passport had a picture of him with curly hair from his “Space Oddity” days and Iggy Pop had platinum blonde hair in a Beatles cut. The guards took one look and burst out laughing at the two passports. David and Iggy were holding back their aggression and gritting their teeth, saying “very funny.”
I’m happy now. Content. I feel more than a product on an assembly line and no more a means of support for 10,000 persons who seem to revolve around every fart that I made.
My role as an artist in rock is rather different to most. I encapsulate things very quickly, in a very short space of time. Over two or three months usually. And generally my policy have been that as soon as a system or process works, it’s out of date. I move on to another area. Another piece of time.
You wouldn’t believe how much of it was entirely unwitting. I think I did play outside the boundaries of what is considered the general area of rock ‘n’ roll. Some of it, just pure petulance, some of it was arrogance, some of it was unwitting, but, inevitably, I kept moving ahead.
Ziggy, particularly, was created out of a certain arrogance. But, remember, at that time I was young and I was full of life, and that seemed like a very positive artistic statement. I thought that was a beautiful piece of art, I really did. I thought that was a grand kitsch painting. The whole guy. Then that fucker would not leave me alone for years. That was when it all started to sour.
Bowie, Melody Maker interview, 29 October 1977.
[Marianne Faithfull] reminded me of Grace Kelly, or rather Kelly’s voice in the duet she sang with Bing Crosby in High Society, “True Love.” Kelly was almost speaking her parts in a captivating and sensual monotone. It was not unlike Crosby’s later duet, with David Bowie playing Princess Grace.
Andrew Loog Oldham (from Stoned).
I’m incredibly happy now, because I’m not ambitious anymore. I do have a strong paternal streak. I’m a born father. I want more children, but not ego children…You can stuff all your punk bands, give me three children instead.
Bowie to Lisa Robinson, Hit Parader, March 1978.
“You owe me a move,” say the bells of St. Groove “Come on and show me,” say the bells of Old Bowie.
The Clash, “Clash City Rockers” (1978).
They’re different from me, they actually go andread books, they don’t read walls.
Bowie, introducing Talking Heads’ “The Book I Read” on BBC1’s Star Special, 20 May 1979.
I’m so pleased that the conclusion of these three albums has been so up. I think it would have been terribly depressing if the third one had been down. At least this one has a kind of optimism.
Bowie, 1979, on Lodger.
The [Scary Monsters cover] character is based on Lindsay Kemp’s very wonderful-looking Victorian clown. I took that feeling and looked inside of that, that’s when you get the disheveled side of the clown. It’s a nod backwards to an element I started with. One always returns and looks back and reincorporates those old things and reevaluates them from time to time…There were an awful lot of mistakes on that album [Scary Monsters] that I went with rather than cut them out. [It’s hard] to put oneself on the line artistically ever since the Dadaists, who pronounced Art Is Dead. Once you’ve said Art is Dead, it’s very hard to get more radical then that. Since 1924 it’s been dead, so what the hell can we do with it from there on? One tries to at least keep readdressing the thing and looking at it from a very different point of view.
I must say I admire [Bowie] for his vast repertoire of talent the guy has, you know. I was never around when the Ziggy Stardust thing came, because I’d already left England while all that was going on, so I never really knew what he was. And meeting him doesn’t give you much more of a clue, you know…Because you don’t know which one you’re talking to.
John Lennon, BBC interview, 6 December 1980.
I enjoy David Bowie. He can stay right out of it all and enjoy his life, enjoy his music. I can enjoy my life like that when I’ve done a lot more work.
Adam Ant, NME interview, November 1981.
The subject matter of ‘Let’s Dance’ is nebulous. There is an undercurrent of commitment, but it’s not quite so straightforward… It’s a one-to-one thing, yes, but the danger, the terrifying conclusion is only intimated in the piece. It is not apparent what exactly the fear is that they’re running from. There’s an ominous quality about it, quite definitely. That was the dance song that has all the trappings of old disco music, but it’s almost like the last dance.
Bowie, NME interview, 16 April 1983.
Bowie: Having watched MTV over the last few months, it’s a solid enterprise…I’m just floored by the fact that there are so few black artists featured on it. Why is that?…The only few black artists that one does see are on from about 2:30 in the morning to around six.
Mark Goodman: Of course we have to try and do what we think not only New York and Los Angeles will appreciate but also Poughkeepsie, or pick some town in the Midwest that would be scared to death by Prince, which we’re playing, or a string of other black faces.
Bowie: That’s very interesting. Isn’t that interesting.
Goodman:We have to play the music that we think an entire country’s going to like…should PLJ play the Isley Brothers? Now you and I might say yeah, because we grew up in an era when the Isley Brothers mean something to millions…but what does it mean to a 17-year old?
Bowie: I’ll tell you what the Isley Brothers or Marvin Gaye means to a black 17 year old, and surely he’s part of America as well…Do you not find it is a frightening predicament to be in?…Is it not possible that it should be a conviction of the station and of other radio stations? It does seem to be rampant through American media. Should it not be a challenge to try and make the media far more integrated? Especially, if anything, in musical terms.
Bowie MTV interview, January 1983
Somebody once said — who was it? It’s terribly important — that Harry Langdon, the silent comedian, cannot be taken on his own; you have to put him alongside that which went on around him, like Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd and Chaplin. He can only be seen by reference, and somebody said that about me, which is probably very true. I kind of quite like that, actually, that you can’t take me on my own. You can only use me as a form of reference!
Bowie to Charles Shaar Murray, NME, 29 September 1984.
Mick wants to do new things. He would much prefer to be David Bowie than to work with Keith Richards because when he makes a record now he has to deal with the fact that Keith Richards wants to be like Muddy Waters and grow old and die playing the blues.
Pete Townshend, 2002.
August 1987: Cafe Luxembourg, following Bowie’s Madison Square Garden Glass Spider concert. Nick Rhodes, Jeremy Irons, Coco Schwab…Bowie asks me what I thought of the show. “A little busy,” I say, attempting to be flippant about the dancers, the huge props, the overkill. “No, really,” he says. “C’mon, you and I have known each other too long. What did you really think?” In no uncertain terms, I proceed to tell him what I thought. You can only fool some of the people some of the time, I say. Less is more, David. Put on a leather jacket and jeans and go out and sing your hits, for God’s sake. It’s a new generation: they’d love those songs. I finish; everyone is horrified. David is laughing.
Lisa Robinson, SPIN, August 1990.
I knew David wanted to do a different kind of music. [But] I always thought if I gave it back to him, it would end up going back to the Spiders from Mars. That’s exactly what happened.
Hunt Sales: But, man, those albums. I dunno. And the Glass Spider tour? Well, I didn’t go and see it but I saw it on TV and…
Bowie: But, Hunt (slips into music hall straight man mode), I thought you never missed any of my tours...
Hunt: I never miss any of your tours. I never go see ’em, so I never miss ’em…
Bowie: Boom boom!
Hunt: But I didn’t like Glass Spider. I mean that. Seriously. I thought it was a bit beneath you. That’s my opinion. I don’t need to sit here and say that I love something I didn’t think much of. I watched it thinking, This is the guy who did Spiders From Mars.
Bowie: What he’s saying is he hasn’t listened to anything of mine since Spiders From Mars!
Reeves Gabrels: But Glass Spider was cabaret. A lot of critics said…
Bowie: Yeah, critics. Give me your personal opinion.
Reeves: If you want my personal opinion you’ll have to ask my wife. But it seemed to me it was about entertainment more than music. I went to see a soundcheck in Chicago and that was better than the show.
Bowie: To come to its defence, I liked the video of it. But I overstretched. I made too much detail of… Oh Christ. Next question!
Tony Sales: He’s beginning to roast!
Tin Machine interview by Adrian Deevoy, Q, June 1989.
He was lying in bed, too weak to stand, losing his sight, going: “Have you heard Mrs Bowie’s new album, darling? What does she think she’s doing?“
Elton John, on Freddie Mercury in 1991.
Did you hear the latest Living Colour album? Vernon Reid wrote a song about bisexuality. I think that’s very good of him, very brave. Because I think especially today people shouldn’t be made to feel as if they should hide their sexuality. These are dangerous times for everyone that wants to explore their own sexuality. Sex is becoming a taboo again and I feel people should be able to talk about it. As long as the discussion remains open you’ll prevent so-called vigilantes from using AIDS as an excuse to discriminate and isolate certain groups from society. Because of this, people will turn inward or won’t experiment with their sexuality or worse: pretend to be something different sexually then they really are and that is very, very dangerous. It must be awful for young people today to be trapped into an existence that goes against their very nature, you have to continue to rebel against this. Sexual experimentation might be dangerous right now, but the danger should not be a reason to stop people from being who you want to be.
Bowie, interview with Oor, 1993.
My personal brief for this collection was to marry my present way of writing and playing with the stockpile of residue from the 1970’s.
Here is a partial list: Free association lyrics Pink Floyd Harry Partch Blues clubs Unter den Linden Brücke Museum Pet Sounds Friends of the Krays Roxy Music T. Rex Costume The Casserole Neu Kraftwerk Bromley Croydon Eno Prostitutes & Soho Ronnie Scott’s club Travels thru Russia Loneliness O’Jays Philip Glass in New York clubs Die Mauer Drugs.
Bowie, liner notes to The Buddha of Suburbia (1993).
Phillip Jeffries: Well now, I’m not gonna talk about Judy. In fact, we’re not gonna talk about Judy at all, we’re gonna keep her out of it.
Special Agent Dale Cooper: [bewildered] Gordon?
Gordon Cole: I KNOW, COOP!
Jeffries: Who do you think this is there?
Albert Rosenfeld: Suffered some bumps on the old noggin, hey, Phil?
Cole: WHAT THE HELL DID HE SAY THERE, ALBERT? THAT’S SPECIAL AGENT DALE COOPER! FOR GOD’S SAKES, JEFFRIES, WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN? YOU’VE BEEN GONE DAMN NEAR TWO YEARS!
Jeffries : The stories that I wanna tell you about… It was a dream! We live inside a dream!
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992).
I see no way we can go back, philosophically, to a world of absolutes. Which I feel very comfortable with and I always have done…I think seeing the problems that historians themselves have with revisionism of history it seems almost nonsensical for the layman to even bother to try and analyze history any more in a straight narrative way. In a way history almost ceases to exist—possibly we can’t really entertain the idea of a future in the same way. Which may be not a bad thing…I mean, by hacking off the limbs of both past and future we might have created a workable future where we have to deal with things on a day-to-day basis, rather than having long term plans for a world which really can’t afford to have long term plans.
Bowie to Ian Penman, Esquire, 1995.
Brian and I had both felt resolutely out of it. I tried passionately hard in the first part of the ’80s to fit in, and I had my first overground success. I was suddenly no longer the world’s biggest cult artist in popular music. I went mainstream in a major way with the song “Let’s Dance.” I pandered to that in my next few albums, and what I found I had done was put a box around myself. It was very hard for people to see me as anything other than the person in the suit who did “Let’s Dance”, and it was driving me mad – because it took all my passion for experimenting away. I went through the doldrums at approximately the same time as Brian. I felt I really wanted to back off from music completely and just work within the visual arts in some way. I started painting quite passionately at that time. Then, toward the end of the ’80s, everything started to fall back into place again. It was as though there had been this hiatus where everything had stood still. Birds hung in the sky; they didn’t finish their flight.
Bowie to Ingrid Sischy, Interview, 1995.
Caller: How did you get the title for the new album and why is the title split up on the album cover? Bowie: Well it was kind of lugubrious, it was a rather a weak pun on the fact that I feel quite happy with life and anything else you want to read into it, you know, the work is never finished until the audience participates and all that. But I think the idea if you change the content of something, if you look at something that you know very well for a long time, it starts to disappear. So if you change the context of what that thing looks like people notice it more, so we put spaces in the word just to make you take in the word “Earthling” in a different way to how you would normally receive it. Riki Rachtman: What was that word again, there, nugubrious? Bowie:…It’s an old graphic design trick. Rachtman: Well you gotta help me with that other word David, I wanna learn a new word. “Unagubrious”? Bowie: [laughs] Lugubrious. Rachtman: Oh OK, I just want to say I learned that one — Bowie: It’s from Alfonse Lugubri, the old silent actor.
Bowie radio interview, Rockline, 1997.
Wake up, people of Omikron! Reshev and his corrupt government are lulling you to sleep in order to control you better. They have transformed you into puppets that are manipulated by Ix and the demons. Join the Awakened Ones and rise up to fight for your freedom.
Boz (Bowie)’s message; Omikron: The Nomad Soul (1998).
Jeremy Paxman: You’ve got to think that some of the claims being made for [the internet] are hugely exaggerated. I mean, when the telephone was invented, people made amazing claims.
Bowie:…No, you see, I don’t agree. I don’t think we’ve even seen the tip of the iceberg. I think the potential of what the internet is going to do to society, both good and bad, is unimaginable. I think we’re actually on the cusp of something exhilarating and terrifying.
Paxman: It’s just a tool though, isn’t it?
Bowie. No, it’s not. No. It’s an alien life form. [Laughs] Is there life on Mars? Yes, it’s just landed here… I’m talking about the actual context and the state of content is going to be so different from anything we can envisage at the moment, where the interplay between the user and the provider will be so in sympatico, it’s going to crush our ideas of what mediums are all about.
Bowie on Newsnight, 1999
Isn’t it all so personal, though, isn’t really all so personal? If by consensus an artist is great, if numerically enough people like that artist, that he becomes a great artist? [Roy] Lichtenstein that way isn’t a great artist. How can he be a great artist if I don’t think he’s a great artist? I mean he had a great gag for the first few years, and then he just did it and did it and did it and then he died.
Bowie on Charlie Rose, 1998.
Our ace boon Arthur Jafa likes to say that ”Andy Warhol was so white he was black.” Bowie (who played Warhol in Schnabel’s film Basquiat) was likewise so avant-garde he tipped over into the Avant-‘Groid—that Afro-outré dimension where Little Richard and Sun Ra define how far out you can go and command love from the folk. Like Joni Mitchell—another unguilty pleasure of many boho blackfolk—Bowie double-crossed back over to black culture by being his own transcendently pan-everything creation. But not even Queen Mother Joni can say she provoked James Brown to copycat action twice in his career. JB was so blown away by Bowie’s ”Fame,” he cut his own carbon-copy track, ”Hot (I Need to Be Loved, Loved, Loved),” and, years later, when Bowie optioned his publishing for stock points, the Godfather of Soul got the news about how lucrative the deal proved and quickly followed suit. Bowie once said, “The secret to my success was I was always the second guy to come up with the idea.” All hip-hop junkies can relate.
I feel like I’ve finally arrived at being instead of becoming, which is kind of how I feel about being young – there’s always a sense that you’re becoming something, that you’re going be shocked by something new or discover something or be surprised by what life has in store. I’m still surprised at some things, but I do understand them, I know them. There’s a sense that I know where I am now. I recognise life and most of its experiences, and I’m quite comfortable with the idea of the finality of it. But it doesn’t stop me trying to continually resolve it: resolve my questions about it. And I probably will. I think I’ll still be doing it – hopefully – like Strauss, at 84.
I don’t think we are going to destroy it at all. I’m not that pessimistic. I just believe we’re going through a transition where we will become a humankind that accepts chaos as our basic premise.
Bowie, Soma interview, 2003.
I’m grateful for any audience, you know? It’s fine; I don’t care if they’ve got two heads. As long as they are there to enjoy themselves, come listen. I suppose the only thing I’m fairly strong-armed about is that I really kind of require them to get involved with the new material I’m writing as well as the older things.
Bowie, Weekly Dig interview, 2003.
The last time I saw him was in New York at a party in the early 2000s. I arrived a bit late and was surprised to see Bowie stepping out of a yellow cab. I asked him how he traveled about Manhattan, unrecognized and un-harassed. Simple, he said. I carry a Greek newspaper. He held it up…People think, hey that’s David Bowie! Then they see the newspaper and realize it’s just some Greek guy who looks like him.
It was early 2007. She was out in the East Village on St. Mark’s Place in the middle of a blizzard, trying to hail a cab. [There was] only one other pedestrian on the sidewalk. When a lone pair of headlights appeared through the snow, the stranger gallantly said, “go ahead.” She said, “why don’t we share?”…It was only in the cab that the scarves and hats came off and she said, “Oh, I know who you are.” She made the split-second (but brilliant) decision to start talking about herself and tell him her entire life story, so he could relax and not have to entertain this stranger he was trapped with…She told him every last detail of her family life (“You’ve got to forgive, for your own sake,” he kept telling her) until the taxi reached Soho. As she got out, he said, “Now when you tell your friends about this, make sure you mention that I was wearing fabulous shoes.”
Rob Sheffield, on his friend’s encounter with Bowie (On Bowie, 2016).
“I’m not thinking of touring,” he said. “I’m comfortable.” He draws, paints and collects 20th Century British art.
Bowie’s last quote to the New York Times, in a profile of his wife, 6 June 2010.
Here’s what David sent me (and I should thank him for doing it, and so I fervently thank him here):
Bowie’s list was left-justified, but probably because he didn’t want to take the time to center justify, and also his list was purposefully double-spaced.
Rick Moody, 25 April 2013.
That’s why I’m so puzzled when people say [my work is] all dark, dark, dark, whereas I think there’s a lot of beauty in it. Obvious beauty. I’m not a religious man, but it’s a longing. For who knows. For existence itself. True existence. It’s a longing for a calling. It’s just a feeling that it might be there.
Scott Walker, 2012.
There are songs to sing, there are feelings to feel, there are thoughts to think. That makes three things, and you can’t do three things at the same time. The singing is easy, syrup in my mouth, and the thinking comes with the tune, so that leaves only the feelings. Am I right, or am I right? I can sing the singing. I can think the thinking. But you’re not going to catch me feeling the feeling. No, sir.
Dennis Potter, The Singing Detective.
I know something’s very wrong The pulse returns the prodigal sons The blackout hearts the flowered news With skull designs upon my shoes
“I Can’t Give Everything Away”
NEWTON: And I’m not of this world. And not yet marked by this place here. Not pinned down in this apartment—not divided into days and praying for my death—and bullied by this broken mind—and before all of this happened to me—and before the journey down here—to wake in the place where I was born. And to be up there.
Lazarus (Bowie/Walsh, 2015).
I remember when I found out about 2:30 in the morning that he’d passed, I was laying in bed, my partner woke me up; she’d heard from Duncan [Bowie’s son]. I just kind of laid in bed and I started laughing. She said, “Why are you laughing?” I said, “Because we had so much fun.“
The night of April 14, 1865, and Lincoln’s assassination. As Lincoln drew his last breath, all the worthies who had crowded into a little back bedroom in a boarding house across the street from Ford’s Theatre turned to Edwin Stanton, Lincoln’s formidable Secretary of War, for a final word….Stanton stood still, sobbing, and then said, simply, “Now he belongs to the ages.”
I picked up James L. Swanson’s “Manhunt,” a vivid account of the assassination and the twelve-day search for John Wilkes Booth that followed. Once again, I came to the deathbed scene, the vigil, the gathering…Again Stanton broke the silence. ‘Now he belongs to the angels.’ Now he belongs to the angels? Where had that come from?…In the endnotes, Swanson explained that his rendering was deliberately at variance with the scholarly consensus: “In my view, shared by Jay Winik, the most persuasive interpretation supports ‘angels’ and is also more consistent with Stanton’s character and faith.”
…I made up my mind about what must have happened: Stanton had muttered “angels,” been heard as saying “ages,” and, if he had been asked which afterward, would have been torn. He might have decided to enable the mishearing, in order to place Lincoln in history, not Heaven. It seemed possible that both versions were true, one to the intention and the other to the articulation, one to the emotion of the moment and one, in retrospect, to the meaning of the life. Angels or ages? Lincoln belongs to both.
…And then I knew that we probably would not have understood any better had we been standing there than we do now. Stanton was weeping, Lincoln had just died, the room was overwhelmed, whatever he said was broken by a sob—the sob, in a sense, is the story. History is not an agreed-on fiction but what gets made in a crowded room; what is said isn’t what’s heard, and what is heard isn’t what gets repeated…The past is so often unknowable not because it is befogged now but because it was befogged then, too, back when it was still the present. If we had been there listening, we still might not have been able to determine exactly what Stanton said. All we know for sure is that everyone was weeping, and the room was full.
Adam Gopnik, “Angels and Ages,” The New Yorker, 28 May 2007.
This is the tenth-annual Bowiesongs Christmas post. For those who didn’t read the thing back in the early to mid-2010s, the joke was that each year’s edition was supposed to be the last Christmas post, as we were about to run out of songs to cover. Then came Next Day, Blackstar, and (waves hands around) all this.
Now the Xmas post has become a check-in: my hope that everyone’s doing as well as they can be. Here’s to another Christmas, to the new year. May it be a happy one for all of you.
For me, 2022 will be about revising Rebel Rebel, still working on 64 Quartets (Quartet No. 8 coming in the next few months), and making some wonderful changes to my life. As Patrick Troughton once said, “life depends on change, and renewal.”
Dr. Leah Kardos is a composer and musician, a senior lecturer at Kingston University, and the founder of Kingston University’s Stylophone Orchestra. She’s written a book on David Bowie, entitled Blackstar Theory: The Last Works of David Bowie, which Bloomsbury Academic publishes in January in the U.S. and February in the UK. (The e-book is out now!)
Blackstar Theory isn’t a Bowie biography, nor is it something as foolhardy as a chronological song-by-song guide to Bowie’s music (cough). Instead, as Kardos writes in her introduction:
What this book does do is explore some of the interconnected webs of meaning that are observable in the work itself. By ‘the work’ I refer not only to the primary outputs of the period in question, but to the artistry embedded within that connects with Bowie’s entire sphere of activity – his career history and the totality of his observable creative practice across time. Although Blackstar Theory deals with death as a subject, it is not the aim of the book…The aim is to approach the realities of Bowie’s mortality using the same terms as he used in commenting and wrestling with it through his work.
Part of this entails Kardos breaking down every Blackstar song and some Next Day ones (I regret that these musical analyses weren’t available for me to rely on in Ashes to Ashes, but am also grateful that I didn’t have to match the caliber of Kardos’ work here—it’s thorough, intelligent, and definitive). She explores some likely influences on Bowie’s last works, including Carl Jung’s dream journal and Dennis Potter’s last teleplays, and has fresh interviews with the likes of Tony Visconti, with whom she’s worked for years. It’s a major addition to the Bowie critical “canon.”
Leah and I spoke via Zoom in early December—the following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
CO: It’s still unclear to me, after all this time, whether Bowie, when he was putting out all of this stuff in his last years, had something like a complete design in mind. I guess I always saw him as someone who’d more draft extensive plans that would never come to fruition, as he’d abandon them to move onto something more interesting. But there’s a narrative logic to the 2013-2016 period, even if unintended. Do you think so, too? Do you see an overarching pattern?
Leah Kardos: I get the impression that he was an intuitive creator. He followed his nose and was really grabbing at anything to try out. However, certainly since diving into the last works and from that position looking back at the rest of the catalog…you recall all those interviews in 2003 when he was saying “I’m always writing about the same thing, it’s always been the same question about isolation and identity, etc.” I started to think, “actually, yeah, you might be onto something there!” Because he really is just talking about the same things repeatedly, just putting a different costume on each time. Approaching the same question from different angles.
The consistency of his catalog is something that’s really struck me since he died. When he was alive, he’d provide something interesting and new, and because we didn’t have the full rear-view picture, it kind of felt like we were floating along with the changes. But I was really struck by the coherence of the catalog. One reason why Blackstar Theory came about was the realization that wow, it really does hang together. The longer you look at it, the better it gets.
CO: One thing I’ve found when I was writing about not just the Blackstar period but Hunky Dory and Station to Station is interacting with a few people, over the years, who really take the occult side of Bowie very seriously. Who appear to believe there is a master plan, that Bowie was dead serious about it all and had mapped everything out.
LK: That there’s a code to be cracked.
CO: Yes, all a bit Da Vinci Code. I do still love the Villa of Ormen Tumblr.1I love the unsolved mystery of that. That could have been him: it’s not out of speculation.
LK: It’s in the realm of possibility. And it seems on brand for him to fuck with people like that. He knew how to slide into a chatroom and pretend to be someone else. I think also all of that fulfilled the function, the drama, the theater, the fact that he was so officially quiet and yet so forthcoming in other ways. Sneaky. Putting this shroud of numinous energy over the last album. I wouldn’t put it past Bowie to have done that. And the fact it’s unresolved is delicious.
Part One: The Set-Up (The Next Day)
CO: So, in your book, as this late period begins, another is winding down. You were a BowieNetter2, and that era seems like such a contrast to the late years. In the late Nineties, he’s Accessible Bowie. He’s chatting with fans, having in-studio live feeds, doing interviews with anybody who claimed to be a journalist. It must have been a fun period for you—does it feel bizarre in retrospect?
LK: It felt very normal for me—I joined BowieNet when I just came out of high school and was just starting to discover Bowie. Back then you bought a CD from HMV or whatever and it would have a card inside saying, ‘join BowieNet!’ I had no idea that being a fan could be any other way, and I discovered the career backstory retrospectively. It was strange when he left us all hanging, but of course we knew he was sick, what more you want? You don’t want to be that kind of fan.
Looking back now, what a remarkable thing it was. It felt so normal at the time, I made friends in the UK when I was still in Australia, probably the seeds of my immigration, to come to England and live here, began there. There are friends I met on BowieNet who I’m still close with today. It’s hugely important to me. His “dad jokes, everyguy, I’m just normal Dave” act, well I fell for it. Obviously he was right to get the hell off of the internet and away from social media when he did.
CO: Your book is primarily about The Next Day and Blackstar. Do you see the beginning of this period with his reunion with Tony Visconti in the early 2000s?
LK: That’s the way I see it, in two categories—the ‘late period’ from Heathen to Blackstar, and the ‘last works’ between 2013–2016. Because the sound of Heathen I feel is traceable right to the end. I also think Tony brought out a certain type of music from Bowie.
The period is also marked by Bowie’s autonomous process. He didn’t have a guitarist or co-writer coming up with material, so in a way the music there links further back to Buddha of Suburbia—that’s just the sound of David making his music, his way, that’s what he sounds like. Writing everything himself in his little home studio. And there’s the freedom of ISO.3 Also Heathen’s introspective anxiety seems to intensify throughout.
So when I pulled it all together, I thought I’d draw a line on it. Some people refer to this is his neoclassicist period, but I’d say it’s more accurately defined as his late period, due to him finding a more consistent approach to music making with Tony, free from label demands, and of course the conscious playing around with his own history.
I also wanted to put the focus back on the songcraft and not define things by the haircut he had at the time. I really wanted to get away from that.
CO: We’ve talked before about his love of the Korg.4How best to describe how odd his affection for this keyboard was—while it’s not a kid’s keyboard, it’s no state of the art synthesizer either.
LK; It was a pretty cool keyboard in 1997. If you needed to save patches on it, there was a module that attached to it and you could save them on floppy discs. I quizzed Tony about the Korg a lot, I was really fascinated by it. The sounds that come from it are weird and incongruous. Like, why choose that? The sounds in something like “Dancing Out in Space”: why are they choosing that? It always came down to this keyboard. He loved that thing.
CO: He was a big preset guy too, I recall Visconti saying.
LK: He did like the old preset but apparently he also knew how to go in and tweak a preset, making something more bespoke. I downloaded all the Korg effects, there’s a sample pack you can find online, and I went through them and I couldn’t find all of them [that were used on the albums], so I suspect there was some parameter fiddling going on.
CO: His composition style is often about what instrument he’s mostly using at the time, right? Space Oddity is the 12-string acoustic; Hunky Dory is the piano. Are the late records in part Korg compositions, deep in their bedrock?
LK: They are! And they’re also owed to the Zoom R24 multitrack unit he had,5 the way he was creating his demos. I spoke to Henry Hey and he got rough demos sent to him, Tony as well, and they had a particular sound about them. You listen to the Lazarus soundtrack, particularly “When I Met You” or that early version of “Lazarus,” you’ll hear these weird guitar parts in there. That was a detail on the demo and Henry said he wanted to honor that.
The demoing comes into its own in the late period, the particularity of the choices that David makes tended to get translated. Tony bought his own Zoom unit so he could figure out how to work with it. Reportedly David would say things like ‘I like the way I did it [on the demo], I don’t see why I have to do it again.’ So the demoing is bleeding into the end results.
CO: The demoing is far different from the old days when he’d go into the studio and tell Carlos Alomar, “okay, this is in A major, and have this funk riff here, and let’s work this out.”
LK: All those [Young Americans session] tapes at the Drexel Archive that Toby Seay has6 is literally that private process of him demoing, but he needed a band to do it back then. So [home demoing] gave him a lot of autonomy in the late period. He didn’t have to rely on a Reeves in the room, on Mark [Plati] in the room, and I think you can hear it in the choices he makes. Some of them sound naïve, some sound exquisite—you get both with Bowie’s demoing.
CO: You mention he’s even doing the scoring—again, this was something he always had to have Ronson or Visconti do—he’s even taking that in-house.
LK: The fact he was achieving this with his basic Zoom digital multitrack unit and not, say, ProTools on a Mac or PC…it’s amazing.
CO: Among my what-could-have-beens if Bowie was still alive, I wonder if he would’ve done a McCartney II7 at some point—a whole record from the Bowie home studio.
LK: Which is one of the oddest things he ever produced. And Tony was emphatic about how much he loves that version, he told me that for him it rivals the Blackstar version. It’s a very strange record indeed, I really enjoyed analyzing it.
CO: You go a lot into Bowie’s “late voice” which you describe wonderfully as having the “wow and flutter of ancient tape.”
LK: Tony is very keen to say whenever he has the opportunity that Bowie’s voice was brilliant to the end. And he was in the room, so who can argue. However in the Whatley Last Five Years documentary, when they isolate the ‘Lazarus’ vocal, you can hear how raspy he sounds. There’s a heavy frail grandeur to Bowie’s late voice that I spend a bit of time trying to frame in the book. Thankfully, another feature of the period is the consistently great vocal takes Tony manages to draw from him, so there’s a lot of musical examples to dig into.
Another thing about the late period is the ensemble singing. It’s often an orchestra of voices beautifully arranged, walls of harmony, call and response, octaves and unisons, left and right spread out, sometimes barely audible—you realize, wow, it must have taken ages to do all of that.
CO: He had on call a singer as good as Gail Ann Dorsey but he chose to do all the vocals himself, for the most part right? He used [engineer] Erin Tonkon for a few things.8
LK: There’s a heck of a lot of him, just walls of David on the Next Day even though he’s got Janice Pendarvis, Gail and Erin and what sounds like a gospel choir there, he uses voices in a painterly way. I mean think about “The Informer” and what’s going on with the vocal arrangement and its construction—that must have been a few days’ work at least. That’s a lot of architectural detail to render.
You know that footage of Lou Reed isolating the backing vocals of “Satellite of Love” and saying ‘how does David do this?’ That’s what I think about the backing vocals of The Next Day—they’re so intricate. Maybe he did spend a bit too much time on that record, those details are so gothic.
CO: The Next Day is in an interesting place right now, reputation wise. There was the initial “he’s back! this is great!” and then with Blackstar, it wasn’t quite a backlash but more a “Blackstar is what Next Day should have been” kind of revision. Where would you rank it now? I find it’s a major record but also an overlong one, and the sequencing feels off.
LK: When The Next Day came out remember feeling ambivalent about it— for me it felt like the album was trying too hard, perhaps overcompensating for something. But I wanted to love it, and of course the first half is super-strong. I think those appraisals were battered by information overload—that’s how I came into it, really loving the good bits on it and hating stuff I thought was badly executed.
Then when I engaged with it deeper, I found the longer you sit with it the better you see the trick he’s trying to pull. I can see he was trying to pull off something quite grand and meta. Whether the material started off intended for a musical or as some kind of experiment or exercise to build back his songwriting chops, maybe that’s one of the reasons why it’s got some weird shapes and so much surplus detail.
One of my conclusions about it is that it works best when you consider it as assemblage art, like the key is not only seeing what it resembles, but also seeing the various parts and remnants that comprise it, the bolts and screws and seams, the proximities of everything. I found an interview with Tony Oursler where he said he and Bowie were involved with the V&A exhibition, they were involved with planning it, and Jonathan Barnbrook also confirmed [Bowie] had his hand in it. So you can add the V&A to the pile of Next Day and Next Day Extra: he was giving us a lot of information in a deliberately impersonal arrangement. An invitation to participate and construct something meaningful from the bits and pieces. One can really sense his directorial hand in all of it, the ‘David Bowie Is…’ question being explored on all sides.
CO: For Next Day and Blackstar, he turned over the promotion of the albums to all those who played on it. This was unusual: if you look back, say for Earthling, maybe Reeves did an interview with a guitar magazine but otherwise it was all Bowie Bowie Bowie, saying ‘this is what the album’s about.’ But now you have everybody but Bowie doing substantial interviews: the drummers, the backing singers, the engineers. It seems to be deliberate in that he was already removing himself from his work, quite early on.
LK: I agree. There’s a chapter in the book called ‘Remystification’ where I’m trying to look at that movement, how he made that retreat. Also to think about ways he represented his own art: refusing to talk but at the same time laterally making more stuff for us to engage with: all the music videos embedded with Easter eggs, the lists, the books. I enjoyed that new kind of intimacy with his material, matched with his absolute disengagement with the media.
Part Two: The Performance (Lazarus)
CO: The middle section of your book is about Lazarus the play. You saw it in its first run in New York [December 2015-January 2016], as I did, and you describe the audience reaction as being much like the one I was in, with everyone walking out of the theater saying “what the fuck was that about?”
LK: The group I was with were like “What was that? Did you like it? I don’t know, I think I loved it. I hated it.”
CO: I’m glad it’s being staged more. At first, it was just this two-month off-Broadway run in this small theater, so it felt like a secret thing that lot of fans didn’t know about because they couldn’t see it. The missing piece of the puzzle.
LK: It’s so crucial, I felt. I think it’s successful. I think it does what it’s meant to do. But the timing of it, you know, it changed it. I saw it while he was alive and again after he died. There’s no way you can come to it the same way again, and no way the play could say the same thing that it first did. It really does exist separately in that first run up until he died. You can see the change in what the new directors are doing with it. It’s really not about [Thomas Jerome] Newton at all anymore, it’s more a Bowie-like character having a dream.
He worked so hard on it and I felt the need to really go deep on it in the book because he devoted and sequestered a lot of his time on it in his final two years. It deserves a deep diving analysis, absolutely.
CO: I’m curious if it will survive as a piece of drama, if it could be staged in 2070, when few people will still have memories of David Bowie while he was alive. Or will it have a short life? I still find Lazarus hard to grapple with. It’s the closest I ever felt to seeing how Bowie’s mind worked, being able to peep in on his thought processes. Like someone recounting a dream to you.
LK: I really love it, and I’m still kind of afraid of it. As a theater piece, if you come into it cold, in one sitting it’s really difficult to grasp because it shunts you about between violence and pantomime and comedy and Bowie songs you love, followed by murders and blood. It’s a lot. As an audience member you come out of there feeling quite punch-drunk: is this what he wanted us to see and feel before he left us? There’s a lot there that works with Bowie’s established archetypes, all the Jungian stuff, the lines all but ripped from the Red Book.9The Looking Glass Murders redux.10
CO: You devote a good amount of space to the late works of Dennis Potter, which I really thought was right on the money. I had no idea Potter had a piece called Cold Lazarus! When I read that I cracked up: “Bowie, you thief.”
LK: Based on something Enda said, I checked out The Singing Detective11 and my jaw was on the floor—there are so many references I recognized from Next Day and Lazarus. Also Potter’s deliberate merging of his biography and his legacy and his myth in the fictions he was creating, muddling it up on purpose to make it richer and more emotionally dense and confusing. You recall the Bowie quote “I think I like complications… I like thickly textured things.”
In Cold Lazarus,12 there is this sequence where the memories of this detached head are projected on screen and go backwards, not through the character’s life but Dennis Potter’s life: this was staged with his direction from beyond the grave. Same in Lazarus: Newton is completely woven into Bowie’s myth almost to point of interchangeability: people see Newton and see Bowie. The blurring allows the show to function like a performed closure of a public life.
CO: It’s amazing how much of a through line Newton is for Bowie. I heard “Looking For Water” playing a while ago and thought “that’s another Newton song.” Is it strange how much he identified with the character?
LK: I was digging around those issues of Modern Painters from the mid-Nineties, and in that interview he does with Balthus he brings up the Bruegel painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus again. That’s another detail directly lifted from Tevis’ book and Roeg’s film. He really did keep referencing and returning to that text.
CO: The recurrence of stars is another one. Towards the end, he’s playing with the idea of a star aging, or dying, like a red giant.
LK: Which I took from you!
CO: Which I may have gotten from one of my commenters, Deanna Kerry, who was an astrophysics grad student at the time—I later asked her to explain blackstars, which she did as well as she could to a scientifically-challenged person like me. It seems like a cliché that everything with Bowie is stars, everything is black holes, but as you said the consistency is unnerving at times. You wonder: did he really have it all figured out in 1968? Maybe that’s all on the Ernie Johnson tape,13which is why we’ll never hear it.
LK: My favorite dead star metaphor reference is in that conversation with Burroughs where he’s describing, down to the costumes, the Ziggy Stardust storyline of dead stars, and aliens traveling along the black holes, all this stuff borrowed from Kubrick’s movie and Quatermass. With immaculate consistency following through with it.
Burroughs: Where did this Ziggy idea come from, and this five year idea? Of course, exhaustion of natural resources will not develop the end of the world. It will result in the collapse of civilization. And it will cut down the population by about three-quarters.
Bowie: Exactly. This does not cause the end of the world for Ziggy. The end comes when the Infinites arrive. They really are a black hole, but I’ve made them people because it would be very hard to explain a black hole onstage.
Burroughs: Yes, a black hole onstage would be an incredible expense.
From Craig Copetas, “Beat Godfather Meets Glitter Mainman,” Rolling Stone, 28 February 1974.
CO: In the late work, Bowie seems to be in dialogue with other older musicians, you note. Scott Walker, Leonard Cohen. Dylan’s Time Out of Mind is very much an influence on Heathen, I’ve thought.
LK: I think so too, so many great parallels. The more you look at them, you think, were they looking over each other’s shoulders? While Dylan was writing Chronicles, Bowie’s working on his books. There are the musicals with Irish playwrights14; the archives.
Part Three: The Prestige (Blackstar)
CO: Moving to the third part of your book, “the prestige” as you call it: Blackstar itself. How essential is the Maria Schneider “Sue”—is that necessary to get to Blackstar?
LK: It’s exciting [the 2014 “Sue”], isn’t it—it’s such a great noir, so dark and elegant. That said, I do prefer the roughness and aggro of the album version, it’s got a lot more emotion in it for me. For the big band version Maria keeps it firmly in control. But there’s something about “Sue” on Blackstar that’s out of control, it’s fucking nuts. I really appreciate the chaos and mess of the Blackstar version.
CO: I have wondered what a full album of Bowie/Schneider would have been like, but I wonder if it was best as this one-off thing.
LK: Would it have been too glamorous sounding? Those large jazz orchestras sound so luxe and shiny to my ear. I wonder if an all Schneider/Bowie project would have felt like a detour in the grand album narrative, like Baal, or that Badalamenti collab. It’s hard to imagine because I love the Blackstar stuff so much.
CO: On Blackstar, while Bowie lets Donny McCaslin and the band have plenty of space, he’s the middle of it all, he’s the controlling figure. Whereas Schneider and Bowie are kind of equals and combating each other, influence wise, in “Sue.”
LK: I’d agree and I love the presence of Donny as being something like Bowie’s emotional avatar, not vying for equal billing, but supplying a musical commentary underneath Bowie’s vocal performance. And it really articulates something: the solo on “Lazarus,” the way it dramatizes a song which on paper is quite simple. The soling on “I Can’t Give Everything Away” also. It reaches towards those inexpressible things, the unsayable stuff. And I’m so glad the last song didn’t end up being “Heat.”
CO: As the legendary Crayon to Crayon said, it’s a blast that the last song on the last Bowie album ends with this noodling, almost prog guitar.
LK: I love it—I’m so thankful for that. The rest of the albums from the late period end on a somber note, so I’m glad he chose to do that with the last one.
CO: For me “Dollar Days” feels like an epilogue, the calm after the storm, a song about wanting to go home but knowing you will never go home again.
LK: It’s beautiful, isn’t it—slipping off the mask a bit, a vulnerable moment. A song about being English and missing England and being okay with it. What I particularly love about that song is Bowie’s thoughtful use of harmony and structure to dramatize the lyric. He’s really mindful of the chords he’s using and the relationships between them, he’s playing with tension.
A lot of these details can get missed—people concentrate on the lyric, or the voice, understandably. But he’s there on his Korg putting a lot of thought and effort into the musical details, embedding references, playing into and against expectations. One reason I wanted to write this book was to give space to unpacking these kinds of details.
CO: He obviously knew a lot about music, having written it for 50 years—how much did you get a sense of how advanced his knowledge was of composition and theory? He’d sometimes say he was more of a ‘that sounds cool!’ type of composer. You mention on “Love Is Lost” an organ figure Bowie got by playing only black keys on his Korg. Schneider described this sort of thing to me as “the element of surprise,” which she thought was fundamental to his work.
LK: He was so omnivorous with his listening. There’s so much he takes from jazz, classical and experimental music and I really think he downplayed his musicianship a lot in public: the catalog tells another story.
The way he commands harmony even in some of his earliest pieces of music: it’s not someone playing a keyboard and saying, ‘that sounds cool.’ You’ve got “Moonage Daydream” transporting you through secondary dominant progressions15 in the first few bars. You’ve got beautiful chromatic transpositions treading through the bridge of “Life on Mars.” All the way through to the cadences of “Dollar Days.”
The chords of “Buddha of Suburbia” are amazing to look at. The way it’s pinned down on D with E minor and a G minor over the top, and then he flips it into B minor, then to B-flat—this isn’t a dude who just knows two chords on the guitar and can only play five notes. There’s immense sophistication going on. This kind of Eno ‘I’m not a musician, I’m just a dabbler’ thing allows him to engage in rule breaking, like he’s never claimed to be authentic about his music or belonging to any formal tradition with it. I will forever be an advocate for Bowie’s compositional prowess. It’s the reason why I love his music.
However he also struggled with his confidence. I asked Tony about The Next Day: why did it take so long? He said it was his confidence.
CO: It’s amazing to think of Bowie sitting there going “am I past it? Do the kids not want to hear from me anymore?”
LK: Which again is so touching. Sometimes I go a few years without making music and then I try to go back to it and think ‘can I really do this?’ Particularly if music creativity is intuitive for you, if you’re not engaging with it all the time, that kind of magic can disappear and you don’t have ready access to it anymore–you have to build it up again from nothing. I see Bowie as a modern romantic—in his best moments showing uniquely exquisite songcraft easily on par with Sondheim,16 Bacharach, or McCartney.
CO: Does the last work need to be the last work? Does it lose its power if Bowie lives five more years and makes two more records?
LK: It’s the question that drove me to change the nature of the book. I originally pitched it as Bowie’s Death Art…does the last work need to be the last in order to work? I don’t think so. I think those couple of days when he was alive and we had Blackstar: it was great, and I remember listening to it and thinking “oh my gosh, he’s given us a gem. He’s given us a diamond.” I was really looking forward to spending a few months digging into it. And then he died and it changed it immediately. So many people went back and revised their takes, kinda shutting the book on it quickly and shutting down the album’s lovely sense of ambiguity.
CO: Seemingly everyone who worked with him on the last record has said he wanted to do more.
LK: I think it’s disrespectful for us to presume Bowie made his last work while he waited for death. All evidence suggests that he was deep in the middle of a creative momentum, that he had sessions booked, he had people on the phone, “I’ve got ideas, I’ve got demos, I’ve got new songs.” He’d found a purple patch! He was making some amazing work and he knew it. He knew he was back in. Blackstar has such a momentum about it. You feel like if they’d had a few more sessions they would have come up even more incredible stuff.
CO: The idea of him doing a show with the McCaslin quartet [as McCaslin said he and Bowie discussed in 2015] is…just incredible.
LK: I can picture it as well. Imagine hearing ‘Tis a Pity’ live!
CO: He was never going to go on tour again and sing “Rebel Rebel” to a stadium. But a jazz club within walking distance of his apartment, that was more his style. That was the story of his last years, right?17
LK: “If I can walk there.”
CO: Is there a sense there are outtakes from these last albums that will one day be heard? There’s “Blaze,” we know.18Are there other songs kicking around, do you think?
LK: The estate has got a lid on whatever exists. It seems that Donny’s got demos and bits of song ideas we’ve never heard before sitting in his inbox. It’s totally feasible that there’s unfinished files and sketches left on the Zoom R24 recorder. But you know, I don’t need it. I’d be devastated if someone went through my files and published my unfinished stuff.
CO: He was never much of an archival guy, musically—getting demos and outtakes from him for reissues was like pulling teeth at times. The idea of him doing a Dylan Bootleg Series is unlikely.
LK: Yeah I think so. Consider his process. For most of his career the way he developed songs was with the help of others. He would have been in a room with the tape or Pro Tools rolling, messing around with musicians and finding what sticks. He needed everyone to respect his privacy, to realize this is process, this is not the finished article. It would be highly rude for someone to share some half-baked shit with the world now that he’s gone. I’m sure there are process-based demos that have Donny’s band, bits of music they didn’t use, and if anything features Donny’s band I bet those sketches would sound especially great and listenable. Hopefully people can keep it all under wraps—I really don’t want to see the things he didn’t want us to hear coming out in a boxed set!
Thanks again to Leah Kardos! Blackstar Theory can be purchased as an e-book now or, in Jan/Feb, in your favorite indie bookstore.
1. A now-defunct Tumblr page (originally: http://thevillaoformen.tumblr.com/archive) from November-December 2015 that contained a number of black-and-white photos, some of which had eerie similarities to images that appear in the “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” videos. No further posts were made after Bowie’s death, and to this day, no one can say with certainty who was responsible for it.
2. Bowie’s webpage/ISP/message board of the late ‘90s-early ‘00s, on which he regularly took part in chat rooms, usually under the moniker “sailor,” and shared journal entries and photos. His appearances became much more sporadic after his heart operation in 2004, and as per Kardos, his last interaction as “sailor” was in 2007, around the same time that he stopped doing live appearances for good.
3. Bowie’s independent label, artist roster of one, which he started in 2001; EMI’s rejection of Toy was the last straw for him, in re working for major labels, though ISO has always had a distribution arrangement with one.
4. The Korg Trinity (Bowie also used a Korg Pandora effects unit and a vintage ARP Odyssey), which dates to 1995. You first hear it on the Omikron soundtrack and ‘hours,’ though as Kardos notes, the Korg is a fundamental part of Bowie’s music right until the end.
5. As per Kardos, “the Bowie home studio setup was connected to a Zoom R24 digital multitrack recorder, which came with an on-board drum machine, bass synthesizer, audio loop editor and a step/real-time sequencer. Even as home recording practices quickly evolved in the early millennium towards software applications like Logic and Pro Tools, Bowie preferred to stick with his Zoom hard disc recorder, a relatively limited and old-fashioned piece of kit by the time he used it to produce the 2014 version of ‘‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore’.”
6. Both Leah and I have visited this archive, located a quick walk from Philadelphia’s 30th St. station. You can read more about these tapes in Rebel Rebel, though Leah went one better and played excerpts from the tapes at a conference with Drexel’s Toby Seay.
8. Tonkon, to Kardos in Blackstar Theory: “For women, a lot of bad stuff can happen when you work in studios, times when you have to smile and put on a happy face and put up with things, but working with David was the opposite of that. I was able to learn so much from him – creative lessons, life lessons … I learned an incredible amount. He was a good person.”
9. Kardos: “The Red Book was Jung’s own private dream journal-cum-art project, a personal record of his own ‘confrontation with the unconscious’, a series of disturbing visions that he experienced during a time when he was close to having a psychotic breakdown as Europe stood at the edge of the First World War. It was finally published in 2009 and its handwritten pages, paintings and drawings were shown at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York (October 2009 to February 2010),” an exhibit which Bowie and Oursler saw at the time.
10. Lindsay Kemp’s 1970 televised version of Pierrot in Turquoise, for which Bowie sang “When I Live My Dream” and other compositions. Lots of dreams, mirrors, bedrooms, killings.
11. One of Potter’s masterpieces, The Singing Detective (BBC, 1986) has Michael Gambon as a writer, Philip Marlow, recovering from a vicious bout of psoriatic arthritis in a hospital ward. The second episode is entitled “Heat.” Kardos’ book lists a number of fascinating parallels between Singing Detective and Bowie’s last works.
12. Cold Lazarus (Channel 4/BBC, 1996), was, along with its twin production Karaoke, Potter’s last work, written as he was dying from pancreatic cancer and produced after his death in 1994.
13. Legendary 1968 “rock opera” demo tape of Bowie’s that was auctioned to a record collector in the Nineties.
14. Enda Walsh (Lazarus) and Conor McPherson (Girl From the North Country).
15. A secondary dominant is, typically, a chord that’s “borrowed” from a key other than that of the song, often employed to anticipate the arrival of the key’s true dominant (the V chord). So “Moonage,” which is in D major, opens: “I’m an all-i-ga-tor!” (D, the I or “home” chord), “I’m a mamapapa comin’ for you!” (F-sharp major, a III chord (the secondary dominant), quickly resolving to B minor, the vi chord of D, with a root note of A (the root of the key’s true V chord): “I’m a space invader.”
16. Bowie, 2008: “I’ve never been keen on traditional musicals. I find it awfully hard to suspend my disbelief when dialogue is suddenly song. I suppose one of the few people who can make this work is Stephen Sondheim with works such as Assassins.“
17. Well, he’d have taken the limo, most likely.
18. Of the various outtakes rumored to have come from The Next Day and Blackstar, only “Blaze” from the latter sessions, which Nicholas Pegg and other sources have heard, is verified to have a complete Bowie vocal/lyric. Many other outtakes of the period likely only have place-filler DB top melodies, Kardos speculates from her research and interviews.
One. On 3 PM on Saturday December 4, I’ll be speaking at the New York Bowie pop-up shop, which is located at 150 Wooster Street (it’s a quick walk to Bowie’s old apartment and the former sites of the Magic Shop and Looking Glass studios, where he made his last albums, if you wanted to do a tour). I believe I’ll talk about various elements that went into the making of 1. Outside, but that’s subject to change.
If you happen to be in the city, please come! Only wrinkle is you have to get tickets beforehand (but they are free!)—I believe there may be a space issue. More information here.
Two. Those of you who follow publishing news may have seen that the parent company of Repeater Books, which published Ashes to Ashes, has acquired Zero Books, which published Rebel Rebel. This means that both my books are now under one roof: an unexpected and quite welcome development.
And this means I’ll be able to do a major revision of Rebel Rebel in the medium-term future. This revision would take into account the new songs that have appeared since it was first published (in early 2015), new sources of information (autobiographies of Woody Woodmansey, John Cambridge, Phil Lancaster, John Hutchinson etc.; the scads of interviews done with Bowie’s fellow musicians in the years since his death), and most of all, I will be able to correct errors, fix names, and make other improvements that I feared I’d never be able to do. I’m very happy to be able to do this; I believe it will substantially improve the book.
The likes of Tony Visconti will have most probably omitted any mention of me in their books, because I will have been to them (just as they were to me) a peripheral character in their David Bowie stories.
John Hutchinson, Bowie & Hutch
Greil Marcus once called John Lennon “the reality principle” of the Beatles: the quadrant of the Beatles who reminded you that life goes on elsewhere, the one who questioned what the group was for, who said why it had to be abandoned (though I’ve long thought this better applied to George Harrison). John “Hutch” Hutchinson, who died a few days past, was something like this for his friend David Bowie.
To his once-partner, Hutch was normality, steadiness, humility, domesticity. Hutch as the control to Bowie’s variable. The Ground Control, as it turned out—“Space Oddity” was originally a duet in which Hutch is left on earth, calling out into the void, fearing that his astronaut counterpart has gone lost.
A few years Bowie’s elder, Hutchinson had a similar trajectory as Bowie in the early-to-mid Sixties: growing up in an un-hip English town (Scarborough), forming an R&B band with an American name (The Tennesseans, of whom Hutch wrote “played most of the Beatles’ cover repertoire before we heard the Beatles”), spending the Beatlemania years scratching out a performing life, looking for the big break. In 1965, Hutchinson moved to Gothenburg, Sweden, where he got notice simply for being the only English rock guitarist in the city.
In January 1966, having turned up at the Marquee Club to ask if anyone needed a guitarist, Hutchinson auditioned a few days later there for David Bowie’s new band, The Buzz. Hutchinson played some Bo Diddley riffs and got the job. In his memoir, he noted that the main requirements for The Buzz were that “the musician could not be too good-looking or trendy, and he must be prepared to adopt a nickname.” Thus, “Hutch.”
The Buzz set the parameters of Hutch’s time with Bowie. Hutch as the genial journeyman guitarist who was able to make Bowie’s odd songs work on stage (“they had unusual shapes, nothing like the current Top 20 stuff”—“Good Morning Girl” came about when Bowie scatted to a jazz riff Hutch was playing); Bowie as the driven, occasionally moody artiste, absorbing every speck of music that he came across.
Married and with a pregnant wife, tired of not getting paid, and wary of Bowie’s new manager, Ken Pitt, who was positioning Bowie as a pure solo act, Hutchinson left The Buzz in June 1966 to get a proper job, soon moving to Montreal for a year or so. In 1969, he’d do the same—leaving Bowie again to go back to the real world. Hutch had responsibilities and obligations. Rock and roll was a circus that he’d work for a few summers, but at some point it was time to go home.
Hutch’s departures, Hutch’s time in normie exile, became one of Bowie’s shadow-mirror lives. What if he’d given up, too? Gotten married, gotten a proper job in Beckenham, turned music into a hobby. Driving through Brixton with Tin Machine in 1991, Bowie wept, said that he still wondered sometimes how all of it happened, that he should have been an accountant or something.
Hutchinson was most of value to Bowie upon his return from Canada, having forsaken R&B for contemporary folk: Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell. In 1968, Bowie stood at one of his crossroads. His first, gloriously weird solo album had flopped; he had no record deal, and Ken Pitt was edging him towards cabaret, stage musicals and film roles. Hutch gave him a new grounding, a fresh backdrop. Hutch was a folkie; now Bowie would be a folkie.
At first, it was indulgent: Feathers (nee Turquoise), a “mixed media” acoustic trio with Hermione Farthingale that’s commemorated by the hippie doodle “Ching-a-Ling,” a song that Donovan would’ve considered too fey. It drove Ken Pitt up a wall, Bowie frittering away his talent on this stuff, which already sounded dated in its first performances.
But when Bowie and Hermione broke up, leading to the “Bowie and Hutch” acoustic duo of early 1969, something caught fire. Bowie needed to be in a double act at the time, with Hutch as his straight man on stage, his friend and harmonizer. The obvious template was Simon and Garfunkel, with the twist that in this incarnation, “Garfunkel,” the mushroom-haired, extravagantly-voiced half of the group, would be the dominant creative force, while Hutch’s “Simon” would play the intricate guitar chords and mostly stay out of his way.
Bowie and Hutch’s 1969 demos, on which Hutchinson sang lead on Lesley Duncan’s “Love Song” and Roger Bunn’s “Life is a Circus,” come off mostly as David Bowie With Accompaniment. Hutchinson stays in Bowie’s shadow; Bowie, making leaps as a composer, sounds ready to leave Hutch behind. But you can hear their friendship in their harmonies and inside jokes. Their time together established what would be Bowie’s standard working relationship: Bowie as director and scenarist; Hutch as facilitator, the one who drafted the storyboards and filled in details. Hutch as the 1.0 version of Mick Ronson, Carlos Alomar, Reeves Gabrels, Donny McCaslin.
Their epilogue was marvelous. Hutchinson returned yet again to play rhythm guitar in the Spiders from Mars’ 1973 tour. What must they have made of each other then! Hutch watching his once-Mod frontman stalking around, with a flame-colored mullet and dressed in Japanese extraterrestrial outfits; Bowie glancing upstage to see good old reliable Hutch standing there, memento of the hungry years.
They’d stay in contact until the end, exchanging the occasional email. In his humble way, Hutchinson wrote in his memoir he “had to remember not to pester David, mind you, as we are many years and many miles apart now and there are constraints that lifestyle and fame impose upon old friends of stars like David Bowie.” No more effacing now. Raise a glass to Hutch, a star in his own right.
Well, it’s been quite the year, hasn’t it? I hope you’ve gotten through it fairly intact.
Not much to say except Merry Christmas to you and yours. Here’s to a safe and happy holiday season, and a hopeful New Year. I didn’t want to revisit my 2019 Xmas post for fear that I wrote something like “2020 is going to be a blast!” Let’s be modest in our expectations now. Perhaps the new year will surprise us. After all, Duncan Jones found the Snowman scarf again.
The blog keeps going at a slow pace. Check in once in a while—you might find something new! There will be two new posts coming relatively soon: one retrospective, one commemorative. The 64 Quartets blog also keeps going at a very slow pace; there’ll be a new entry there soon, too.
I did look back at the 2019 Xmas post after all, and what I wrote at the end of that one applies today: Happy Xmas, happy New Year, Happy “we’re still here, and doing okay.” Here’s to the future. Take care.
I’ve known Michaelangelo Matos for some time and greatly enjoyed his 2015 book, The Underground Is Massive. Today he has a new one out: Can’t Slow Down: How 1984 Became Pop’s Blockbuster Year, which I enjoyed even more.
Can’t Slow Down is Matos’ massively-researched, sharply-written, concise, and intelligent history of one of pop music’s biggest years, the year of Purple Rain, Private Dancer, and Born in the USA; of Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Duran Duran, Madonna, Van Halen, Culture Club, Cyndi Lauper and, most of all, the towering presence of Michael Jackson. An era of spectacles, from Stop Making Sense in movie theaters to Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is,” from the Reaganite apotheosis that was the 1984 Summer Olympics in LA to the concluding chapter on Live Aid in 1985. It also covers “underground” scenes on the verge of breaking big—1984 is a golden year for U.S. indie rock, for example (Let It Be, Double Nickels on the Dime, Reckoning, Zen Arcade, etc.), and is also foundational for house and hip-hop.
It’s a year in which seemingly everyone who ever recorded pop music was seen out in public—there’s a wonderful chapter centered on a panel at the New Music Seminar in New York that featured, among others, James Brown, Lou Reed, Afrika Bambaataa, George Clinton, Madonna, Romeo Void’s Debora Iyall, John Oates, Joe Ely, and Fred Schneider of the B-52’s. Yet it’s as often concerned with the doings of music business pros—the A&R scouts, radio programmers, producers, label execs, journalists, TV talent bookers, etc., who made “1984” happen.
Though David Bowie is often a spectral presence in 1984, as Matos says in this interview, he’s still seemingly everywhere that year, as influence and rival, and he does still get a #1 album and Top 10 hit. The pop world of 1984 is one that Bowie both revels in and hides away from—much of his subsequent career is him coming to terms with how popular he’d become then. After all, it was a time when, as Wham!s album was titled, you were supposed to Make It Big.
The following is edited from a talk Matos and I had last week. If you’re interested in the book, please buy it from your local bookstore!(or Indiebound).
CO: There’s an anecdote that you open the book with that really rang true to me. You’re nine years old, you’re cleaning your room and listening to Top 40 radio and you realize that you’ve been listening for hours and you don’t hate any of the songs playing. I was 12 and it was the same deal for me. And…that’s not the case for long, even very soon afterward, right? The “1984 moment” feels very brief—when is it over, as early as 1986, 1987?
Michaelangelo Matos: The moment wasn’t just gone but completely formulized. Part of what makes the ‘84 moment is a great deal about professionals being professional. That’s a lot of it. It’s not fair to say it was this great shining moment and it had nothing to do with the business. It had everything to do with the biz. The biz is what made the moment. It just happened to be a high-water mark of a certain way of doing things that quickly became pomp and circumstance. It was a much faster version of the difference between, say, ’65 and ‘74.
But for a while, suddenly, there was this thing that seemed so promising and playful and the people who were doing it really seemed to be enjoying it. There was a real spark of energy. It wasn’t just, “oh we have to calibrate our business plan according to Thriller.” It was more: “wouldn’t it be fun to make hit songs of all these titles? Wouldn’t it be fun to make a whole album of hit singles?” People were pushing themselves to make good hits. It wasn’t just that they were trying to get on the radio, though you can never understate the mercenary nature of the business. There’s a great deal of cold-faced greed there too. The thing I really enjoyed was writing the chapter about AOR. That was fun.What rock history doesn’t treat these guys as demigods? Well, let me be the first.
CO: It’s striking to realize how old, relatively, many of the big 1984 pop stars were. Phil Collins, Bowie, Tina Turner, Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Huey Lewis—some of these people had been around for decades at this point.
MM: Purple Rain is Prince’s sixth album. It had been seven years at that point since he’d signed a contract and six years since his debut.
And Phil Collins is not just somebody who’s been doing it for a long time, but someone who’s absolutely comfortable in the pop field. He is completely comfortable making pop music for large audiences. There is no weird divide for him between that and what he’s done since the ‘70s, because Genesis evolves along with it, Genesis turns into a singles band right as AOR is hitting the skids.
CO: MTV is obviously a big part of the 1984 story, but has it been overstated over the years?
MM: One thing to keep in mind is that MTV is not the be-all and end-all. MTV has a great deal to do with ’81 to ’83, but by ’84, MTV wasn’t the whole story by any means. By ’84, radio has really come back into its own. Top 40 is making hits on its own, in a way it hasn’t been in a long time.
The other thing that is relevant here: when we’re talking about video, we’re not just talking about MTV and not only talking about television, but also talking about clubs. In the early ‘80s every club got a fucking video screen and started playing videos. That was new. And a lot of the big club hits that wound up becoming ‘80s standards first got played as videos in clubs. That’s very important to the whole thing.
CO: One thing you note is that by 1984 the “Second British Invasion” of America is already falling apart, not long after it begins. Duran Duran is falling apart, Culture Club is a mess.
MM: I was looking through some ’89 magazine issues and this was the point when they were “Duranduran”: one word. It’s so funny—the ‘80s get glossed over so much in rock history. The impulse is to glorify these people and it’s often their least glorious era. People overlook all the crazy shit that happened in this period. Like “Duranduran”—what, are you some kind of arthouse thing now? What the fuck! Did Wong Kar-Wai film you? No, Wong Kar-Wai wouldn’t fucking do that with your name—that is a bad manager decision. It’s a glorious era for terrible ideas and decisions on the part of these people. It’s not like all I want to do is point and laugh, but there is some element of that to it. There has to be, it can be so fucking absurd.
CO: One of the last times you could be ridiculous in an unironic way.
MM: All of late ‘80s culture in some ways seems to be leading up to and is almost redeemed by Road House. It’s like, this should suck but it’s so rich and funny and entertaining and you know they knew this, even if they’re doing it totally straight-faced. They know how ridiculous this is. And you get that but in a sadder way when watching a Jefferson Airplane video from 1989.
MM: That’s what I’m thinking of. It’s not like I sat down and watched more than that. I didn’t go “hmm, what else?” I’m happy to let certain lost worlds stay lost.
CO: In your country music chapter, I was taken by one quote [by MCA Nashville’s Jimmy Bowen], that in the early ‘80s “pop music became very stale, the albums were not that good…and country music filled those slots…now pop music got its act back together…[and] they simply pushed us back off of those slots.” You can see this swing back sometime in the ‘90s.
MM: I think he’s really talking about the crossover market. That’s a fairly distinct sector. One thing about that chapter is that it’s kind of an outlier for the subject matter. I think I treat it well and I think it’s a decent overview, I’m not trying to minimize what I’ve done there. But it’s an outlier for me in terms of when I wrote it—it was a Pop Conference presentation that I added a few things to. Most of that was done in a very contained period. I went to Nashville and that’s when I did the research for it. I had things of my own before that and from books from the library here and I sort of melded it all back together. I have a strong memory of that chapter of being a very self-contained unit of time and writing, whereas some others sprawled along and I rewrote things and overhauled things.
CO: I got the sense that you read scads of Billboards, Gavin Reports, Radio & Records for this era, is that fair to say?
MM: Absolutely. There’s a website, World Radio History, that has scans of incredible numbers of trade magazines, music magazines, regular coverage music magazines, sometimes stuff that’s completely offline, completely gone—publications that ended decades ago. This incredible resource. I started working on this book essentially in September 2015, and I moved back to the Twin Cities in February of 2016. So I’d been working on it pretty diligently for six months when I got here and then I discovered that website. I realized I’d been working with very incomplete data with regard to Billboard because I was using Google’s archive.
CO: Yeah, there are pretty big holes in that collection.
MM: Most of 1984 is gone. The gap was something like April 1983 to September 1984. So I was using a little bit of ‘83 and I thought, well I’ll find other things to fill in those gaps, and then I discovered Radio History and they have all the Billboards. That meant putting them all on my iPad and reading them everywhere. Get on the bus, read Billboard. At the same time I discovered [an archive of] all the Smash Hits from 1984 and read them. What was happening was that Radio History was expanding as I worked. I’d check it again after a month and, oh my God, there’s all the Cash Boxes. This was constant. This happened for a good two years until I finally couldn’t do it anymore. There’s a point at which you just have to stop doing research.
CO: When did you have the structure of the book in place?
MM: It’s funny: I’ve had more or less the same chapter list going back eleven years. I started working on this book in 2009. I wrote a proposal, and it wasn’t a good proposal, because I didn’t know how to write a book. I knew what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to manifest that, so I was hedging a lot. So I thought, “I’ve got to downscale.” The proposal I wrote had twelve chapters, one for each of these major artists, and I thought, that’ll be okay, it’ll be like a book of essays. But I didn’t want to write a book of essays. I wanted to write a real history but I had no idea how to do it, because at that point most of my living was still in writing record reviews. That was most of my work. Over the next two years, it became almost none of my work because there stopped being a market for record reviews, for the most part. I had to re-orientate myself to writing features, and as soon as I did, I thought, my God, this is so much more fun, you know?
I remember I’d see things that I’d written about a year or two earlier or six months earlier [in a review] being discussed in a feature and see people linking to it and talking about it, and I’d be like, “I talked about that. I said that very fucking thing.” And nobody had read it because nobody read record reviews anymore. It was a reality check. I realized this is not sustainable, I can’t keep doing this because I’m going to starve to death.
Also, I had come up writing in late ‘90s alternative weeklies, where ideas on the page were expected. You were expected to be thinking about shit in a real way. That’s gone. That left. Suddenly it was like nobody took it seriously anymore. There was no market for it, and I had all these ideas that really needed to be explored at length. That was a frustration, too. That was manifesting in wanting to write a book that wasn’t a book of essays.
CO: There’s a cinematic quality to how you introduce characters in the book—you’ll have a central location, say an awards show, and then you “pull back the camera” when someone appears on stage and give a couple pages of backstory.
MM: That was very deliberate. What I had to do is write the other book. I had to write The Underground Is Massive in order to write this one. It took me a long time to generate the edifice of it. What happened was that I kept a Tumblr page and I would just put shit on it—this is funny, here’s an interesting photo, here’s a song I’m thinking about. With [TUIM], I knew the structure immediately and I knew what the structure of this book would be as well, but I had no idea until I’d written it how one might fill those structures out. What about this, what about that? With [TUIM] I had the lineups of everything, so I knew where the holes were. There isn’t that much drum ‘n’ bass in that book, but I knew where the drum ‘n’ bass piece would lie.
It’s a process—you have to learn as you go. There’s no map to write a book, every fucking book is different. So where I did all those interviews [for TUIM], I knew I wasn’t going to be able to do as many for this one, and I didn’t want to. Because I’d already known, just by looking through the material I already had, that I hadn’t seen anyone talking about any of the shit that I’m reading about from that period. The interesting stuff, the things that I was finding where I was like, “I didn’t know that.”
I set out to write a book about stuff that surprised me. And that was pretty easy to do, because a lot of it surprised me.
When I had my back against the wall and realized okay, I’ve got to put up or shut up and write this goddamned proposal. And what I realized, I looked at the Tumblr and said, wait a minute, why don’t I just use this stuff? I have all this stuff that I already thought was interesting enough to show people—why don’t I just put it all in order? That’s how I wound up writing the outline of the proposal. It was like, you’ve done the work, you just haven’t put the work in order. Once I put all of those things into chapters, it was a matter of connecting the dots.
CO: Was Live Aid always intended to be the last chapter, the close of the book?
MM: I’ve had some version of the twenty-chapter list since 2009. The minute I thought of the idea, [Live Aid] was the logical, obvious, you-can’t-have-a-different-ending ending. There was no second choice: that’s where it ends.
CO: Could something like Live Aid happen now? Obviously, there could be a big charity concert with lots of celebrities, but could there be an equivalent to what “Live Aid” was in 1985?
MM: The culture has lost a lot of the innocence that fueled it. We do not have an innocent culture in any way now. Not that anyone thought anything was innocent then, either. Music culture has become more purely mercenary and is more outward about it, and I don’t think that’s altogether a terrible thing (laughs)—the devil you know. But I don’t know enough about the business as it stands today frankly to make an assessment. I have a very partial overview of current music and it’s been that way for a while and it’s going to stay that way for a while. I don’t want to cover pop—I gave that up a while ago. Not because I dislike pop as an idea but just because my specialties are elsewhere, when it comes to current music. And I think that the question I know how to answer is whether I’d want to watch such a thing, and I think the answer is no.
CO: One thing that struck me in the book was just the colossal sales of physical media. People bought so many records, tapes, CDs in 1984. It’s crazy to think about now.
MM: It’s only crazy to think of it now because physical media doesn’t exist. The very idea that there would be no physical media sales sounded lunatic for a really long time.
CO: You have that quote from Quincy Jones in the intro where he’s basically predicting Spotify in a trade magazine interview in 1984. [Jones: “It could be possible…for you to have no inventory in your house. No books, tapes, anything, if you had access to a satellite, a code book/catalog and a television set…”]
MM: That threw me for a loop. It was one of those things that when I found it I thought, “this is too good not to show people, but I shouldn’t be showing people this.” But I also realized it’s social media and everyone forgets. People put up the same stuff that they wrote every few months and not only will you get a different audience for it every time, you will get the same audience that’s forgotten about it.
CO: I recently did a joke on Twitter and apologized that I’d done a variation on it five years ago, and then realized nobody would remember that or care.
MM: Nobody fucking remembers anything anymore. Nobody retains anything anymore. I have a very old man complaint about it that I’ll spare you.
CO: We finally should talk about Bowie a bit, I suppose. [Matos: I was just gonna say!] He’s somewhat of a marginal presence in the book, although he releases a #1 album in the UK that year—he’s both there and not there in 1984, which is kind of where you’d expect him to be.
MM: He is big in ’83—the book about ’83 would be a whole different thing. And in a sense it is a book about ’83, because so much of what happens in ’84 germinates in ’83. Bowie was too big a presence to ignore. There’s no way to write this book without including some Bowie, and he’s fun to write about, as you know. But I also knew I wasn’t going to be writing a ton about him. He’s not at the Grammys, he’s only on the VMAs because he recorded something earlier. He’s spectral that year. He takes most of the year off, aside from releasing Tonight. Doesn’t go on tour behind it. He does like one interview, and it’s with Charles Shaar Murray and Murray puts it out to three different publications with different stuff in it. That’s that. And Kurt Loder or somebody goes and watches him film the Blue Jean video. He doesn’t do any press. He’s absenting himself. He’s basically like, I’m going to make this record to give me some money, to give Jim [Iggy Pop] some money, and he’s going to take it easy. He’s moved to the Alps and he likes his life.
CO: Tonight is this outlier in the context of top-charting 1984 albums. It’s a bad record but a strange bad record.
MM: Is it an outlier, or a harbinger of things to come? It’s completely half-assed: of course it’s a strange record, it’s scraps.
CO: It’s bizarre, the idea he thought someone would appreciate his take on an obscure Chuck Jackson single, or his take on “God Only Knows.”
MM: [In the book], it’s all just a lead-up to Live Aid, where he slays. I hadn’t watched the Live Aid performance in full—I remembered it well—until I read you, you were talking about it was one of the great performances of his career, and it was, wasn’t it? I didn’t think I was ready to understand that, because it took me a long time to get to Bowie. Bowie was such a has-been at the time [the late ‘80s & early ‘90s].
CO: People still forget that.
MM: I was also overly reliant on [Robert] Christgau’s record grades, and there are so many B-pluses and Bs in there—I was just trying to hear the A-minuses, so I missed a lot of good things that way. I didn’t realize for a long time just how fucking indebted Prince was to Bowie. So that took a while.
One reason for Bowie’s spectral presence in other parts of the book is that you can’t just introduce him at Live Aid. It doesn’t make sense in the narrative, and it also would be false. Whereas you can introduce Queen there.
CO: You told me a while back that MTV in the U.S. cut away from Queen’s Live Aid performance midway through, which seems bizarre now, given the rep of that performance.
MM: Cut away from Queen’s performance to an interview with Marilyn McCoo. Who was then the co-host of Solid Gold.
CO: Yeah, it was like “wait, we’ve got McCoo on camera three? Cut away!”
MM: It really does tell you just how little Queen were cared for at that point in the States.
CO: Is the prominence of Queen’s Live Aid performance now something that grew over time, a product of YouTube and the movie?
MM: In Britain then it was obvious they’d stolen the show. That was the triumph of all triumphs, and the close of the book tells that story pretty well. This Melody Maker guy is just like fulminating. It’s against his code of conduct to be saying he liked it. You can sense, oh yes you’ve been indoctrinated by punk and you’ve internalized all the rules but [Freddie Mercury] got to you. Because I was the same way—I hated Queen growing up, I hated them! I didn’t like them all! I still don’t really like them much—I will never ever voluntarily put on a Queen recording. It doesn’t mean they’re bad, it’s just not my taste in the least. But I will watch that fucking performance any time because it’s glorious. It’s everything you could possibly want from that band in 22 minutes.
The internet has really shown us how wide and also narrow a canon can be. One of the things I wrote about for an upcoming issue of the Wire was on “what kept you sane in 2020.” And I wrote about Don Giller’s YouTube David Letterman archives. The Tom Waits collection is like 2 ½ hours, it’s every Tom Waits appearance on Letterman from 1983 to 2015. Every one of them is a song followed by banter, and he’s Tom Waits, he’s funny as hell. I was watching this thinking that you cannot have a better introduction to him. This is genuinely the best way to learn about this guy.
CO: The Queen performance is even more striking when, as you write, so many other of the “legend” performances at Live Aid were under-rehearsed and sloppy, like Led Zeppelin. I recall as a kid waiting for this big Bob Dylan/Keith Richards climactic performance and then they stumble out and look like winos.
MM: Not just look.
CO: Did you wind up cutting any chapters?
MM: The book is 40% what I wrote, but no chapter ideas were abandoned. What got cut were profiles of groups, profiles of artists. I left a number on the cutting room floor—Sonic Youth, Depeche Mode, Janet Jackson. Tabu Ley Rochereau and Franco. I wrote [the latter two] together because ’84 is when they make their duets album that gets released in ’85 in the U.S. as Omona Wapi. I really wanted that in the book because those are the two biggest African acts at the time—those guys were way bigger than Fela [who made the cut for the book]. But I couldn’t include them.
I didn’t get around to writing about Billy Idol. I kept pushing him back, thinking “he’s not going to be in this chapter, he’ll be in the later chapters.” And then I got to the MTV Awards chapter where he performed and I said, “I just can’t do it—this is already overstuffed and I cannot include anything more.” I’ve already got three times as much as what this thing will allow, it’s the Madonna chapter and that’s really the fucking point of it.
I had to cut a long DeBarge thing which actually dovetailed with the Janet Jackson piece, because that’s when she marries James DeBarge. I had a treatment of all of that and then realized, this is not going to work, I have too much here and I have to cut. It became obvious when I did Underground Is Massive that these books are not about my tastes. That [earlier] book would be entirely different if were about what I liked, and so is this.
CO: How do you edit?
MM: I write long and cut. What happens is that I take forever to write the damn thing because I chase every fucking lead down, I try to find everything I’m curious about within that framework and I go to work. I do the whole thing and it takes forever, but when it comes to cutting it I’m emotionless. All that matters is if it works. I’m looking at it completely coldly. I don’t have to think about it because I did it. I wrote what I set out to write, so if it doesn’t work that means it wasn’t good enough or there wasn’t space for it. I cut Underground Is Massive to size in about two weeks and I did the same thing with this.
Every book has a wordcount—it’s math. I spend the whole day doing math and what I spend the day doing is figuring out how many words I want each chapter to be, and how many words there are in total, and how much I’ll need to cut. If I’m cutting each chapter down to one-third of its [original] size, it has to be this many words. I do that for the whole book and it makes it really easy. Again, you’re taking your ego completely out of it. Now you’re just doing math. Or say you’ve read through one section and think, “this is rock solid, I can’t do anything.” That means you have to cut the other section out. It clarifies things.
CO: This might be off the mark but one book that yours seems to be in conversation with is Dave Marsh’s Heart of Rock & Soul, from 1989 [a list of Marsh’s 1001 top-ever singles, which included, somewhat controversially at the time, lots of Madonna and even a Billy Ocean track].
MM: Very much so. I’d say even more [Marsh’s] FirstRock and Roll Confidential Report ..it’s both. Another section that I had to cut was about the proliferation of rock books in ’84.
CO: The Book of Rock Lists, things like that?
MM: If you remember the bibliography of the First Rock and Roll Confidential Report, it’s like 200 books—this is when those books all came out. There were pieces about this—there were pieces about the proliferation of rock books. Marsh had like a book out every six months it seemed; Born to Run had been a best seller.
CO: Yeah the mid-‘80s is when the first wave of serious Bowie biographies all appear, I recall. There wasn’t much before then.
MM: I really enjoyed the photo book about the Serious Moonlight Tour. With Dennis O’Regan. I had so much in there at one point about the making of that tour…that was a lot of what I cut. I quoted the fuck out of that book and then I realized there was no space for it. Chet Flippo wrote it—I was like, oh, you got a real writer. It’s a perfect example of Bowie’s extremely good taste. Bowie had very good taste in music writing. Greg Tate once wrote for MTV News that he went to interview some startup that Iman was working on and apparently they were sitting there talking, she was behind her desk, and she gets a call and “it’s for you, it’s my husband.” And Bowie is lavishing Tate with praise. And of course, Mystery Train is in his 100 favorite books.
Thanks, Matos! Again, if you’re interested in this period of pop history, I think you’ll enjoy the book.
Scary Monsters was released on Friday, 12 September 1980 in the UK, where it was a smash: hitting #1 and having four Top 40 singles, Bowie’s best chart showing there since Diamond Dogs. Released sometime in the following week in the US, sales there were more in line with Bowie’s withered chart performances of the late Seventies. In the US, it peaked at #12 on Billboard and didn’t produce a single chart pop hit, though it got decent album rock airplay.
Reviewers (mostly) praised it at the time and would keep doing so; the cliché “best since Scary Monsters” would appear in assessments of Tin Machine, or Black Tie White Noise, or Outside, or Heathen. Scary Monsters became an end-stop. The Last Great Bowie Album, Until Maybe This One (Well, No).
ScaryMonsters is dressed as a finale, one of several in Bowie’s life. The last album that Bowie made for RCA, concluding a sequence that had begun with Hunky Dory. The last Bowie album in the 20th Century produced by Tony Visconti—their friendship frayed soon afterward; they didn’t speak for years. The last Bowie album with Robert Fripp, the last with the magnificent rhythm section of Dennis Davis and George Murray.
There was its recycling, its sense of recurrence. Major Tom returns, as does Lindsay Kemp’s Pierrot. Much like the Rolling Stones’ contemporaneous Tattoo You, Scary Monsters refurbished older, abandoned songs: six of its ten tracks derive from or reference late Sixties-early Seventies Bowie compositions. It’s a rummage through an estate sale, finding a “Laughing Gnome” single, an Astronettes demo. Edward Bell’s album cover illustration (see below) includes a Berlin Bowie retrospective, the LP cover characters now blurred, shrunken, distorted. Bowie’s role as a clown was a nod to his time “in the circus” with Kemp in the late Sixties — his costume was designed by Natasha Korniloff, who had worked with him and Kemp in those years. But there are two clowns on the album cover: the dignified one who looks straight at you, and the disheveled one behind him, casting a long shadow.
Is it possible, given all of this baggage, to hear the album fresh today? To hear it as listeners in 1980 did? Though, of course, they had seen Scary Monsters via a prism of impressions and perceptions that we, forty years later, can only guess at. A punk kid who considered Bowie an old vampire, looking to steal what he can. A woman who loved “Fame” and “Golden Years” in her teenage years, getting the new album as part of an RCA Record Club 10-LPs-for-a-penny batch, dropping the needle on “It’s No Game (Part 1),” soon yanking it off (“this sounds awful—why is he screaming all over the place?”) and filing the album away, never to be played again; it’s eventually bestowed upon a library or a cousin.
Monsters was meant to sound fresh, contemporary, to be more commercially-minded than the “experiments” of the so-called Berlin era. Eno was gone. Bowie seemed “more serious,” both Fripp and Chuck Hammer noted. The album would remain contemporary as it aged, with its near-future always near; it would be Bowie’s perpetual New Album. This summer of pandemic and mass conspiracy, of depression (economic, spiritual) and street actions, of increasingly authoritarian and chaos governments, is a world that Scary Monsters would recognize, as it’s already there in its grooves.
Scary Monsters was made in two blocks: tracking sessions with guide/sketch vocals at New York’s Power Station, in February-early March 1980, and overdub and vocal sessions at Tony Visconti’s Good Earth Studios in London, ca. April-May 1980. Somewhere along the line, a set of rough mixes and/or alternate takes were bootlegged—the most likely scenario is that someone dubbed some tapes in the last days of recording in New York, before Visconti shifted operations to London. The original “mass release” bootleg of these tapes was, apparently, Vampires of Human Flesh, ca. 1994.
Along with the bootlegged Leon tapes from 1994 and the Young Americans session tapes housed at Drexel University, the “Scary Monsters roughs,” for lack of a better term, are the only documents that we have of Bowie’s in-progress studio work. While not that revelatory—rhythm tracks are mostly the same as those on the album, nor do Bowie’s lyrics differ greatly from final versions—it’s still invaluable. Scary Monsters, a hard-crafted, punchy album, as seen before the last layers of paint were applied. The energy pulsing through the roughs is such that sometimes I’ll choose the bootlegs over the mastered tracks.
Scary Monsters sounded good in part because of where it was made, the hottest new studio in New York. Originally a Con Edison plant on West 53rd St. and 10th Avenue, the Power Station (hence the name) had opened in 1977, owned by Tony Bongiovi (cousin of Jon) and Bob Walters. Among its first users were Chic, who would book its Studio B for months. Bowie cut Scary Monsters at the same time Springsteen was cutting The River (hence Roy Bittan’s appearance). Decades later, in 2007, Bowie went back to the studio, which at the time was known as Avatar, to cut backing vocals for a Scarlett Johansson record. Chris Moore, who recorded him then, told me that Bowie “said it felt weird to be back there.”
The band was the trio which had supported Bowie on tour in 1976 and 1978 and which had been his albums’ supple backbone from Station to Station to Scary Monsters. I’ve written enough over the years on the brilliance of Carlos Alomar (heard on backing vocals on the roughs, a role that he often played on tour), Murray and Davis. Their departure after this album (Alomar occasionally returned to the Bowie orbit; Murray would retire completely) was inevitable and tragic.
The roughs are the sound of three musicians at work, one establishing something, the other two ratifying it, as they had when they’d made Station in LA and Low in France and “Heroes” in Berlin and Lodger in Switzerland, this magnificent team of movers, each time setting up in a new studio, in a new country, doing mike checks and then leaping off again, ever so easily, Davis to Murray to Alomar, in telegraph bursts, in long, animated conversations in dynamics and rhythm, always keyed into this great joyous connection they had. The roughs give us a Scary Monsters freed from Robert Fripp’s lead guitar, Andy Clark’s synthesizers, Visconti’s effects and processors (Pete Townshend’s lead is already there in the earlier version of “Because You’re Young,” as he’d cut his parts in New York); it’s the album exposed at its thick roots, David Bowie singing over a New Wave R&B band.
Listen to the instrumental outtake that bootleggers mistakenly titled “Is There Life After Marriage?“—it was, in truth, yet another Bowie attempt at covering Cream’s “I Feel Free.” A trio in a New York studio one evening in February 1980, in a world that now seems as far away as the Napoleonic wars. Alomar parries, Murray rumbles, Davis settles matters. Then they do it again.
Years ago on a blog comment thread, Momus wrote about trying to parse Bowie’s lyrics in “Aladdin Sane,” which he accurately described as “eccentric doggerel.”
“Passionate bright young things /Takes him away to war (don’t fake it)/ Saddening glissando strings / Uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh (you’ll make it)”. The verbs and the nouns don’t even agree! And how could you fake being taken away to war? Where’s the orchestra? It makes no sense! “They’re atmospheric,” Bowie once said of his lyrics. But actually, what I’ve underestimated is that the vagueness is tactical….There’s a kind of negative capability in not being too intentional, too specific, too narrative.
Bowie’s lyrics on paper rarely resemble “verse,” even by the loose standards of rock musicians. They’re meant to be sung, in his voice, and, sometimes, to be obscured in the mix. One line is a garble, the next a fragment, the subsequent one a sharp phrase that lingers in the memory. This tactical vagueness, as Momus called it, was key to Bowie’s aesthetic. Ziggy Stardust has no comprehensible story but the one that you, listener, choose to give it. In the Seventies, Bowie strove to make his lyrics ever more disjunctive, jarring, abstract: using William Burroughs/Brion Gysin-style cut-up was liberating for him. Meaning would be found, should one wish to find it, in the spaces between the lines, in the note that Bowie used for a particular word, in how he phrased a closing line.
You can take this argument too far (a very Bowie thing to do). There are times where he’s writing lucidly about a particular person or emotion or scenario, and his lyrics are often colored, as he’d agree, by the time and place in which he wrote them. See Scary Monsters, whose lyrics were written from possibly late 1979 to, in a last revision burst, March-April 1980, and in jumps from New York to Japan to London.
We’re lucky, as with the album’s bootlegged rough mixes, to have a window into Bowie’s lyric-writing process for Scary Monsters. The David Bowie Is exhibit included two “sketch pages” on graph paper, invaluable documents of how he compiled phrases, quotes, ideas, stage/production concepts, jokes, and queries, and then began to piece together songs from them. The first is below:
It’s like a transcript of Bowie’s mind. Apparent ideas for covers (“Try Some Buy Some,” “Suzy Q,” “Green Tambourine,” “She’s Not There”), which offers the prospect that Bowie was considering a record similar to Heathen and Reality: three-fourths originals, one-fourth covers (“I Feel Free” got as far as the tracking stage—who knows about the others). “Zow[ie]’s Kids List”—his son’s suggestions? Musical and/or production references abound—Wagner, “Clapping Song” (Shirley Ellis, possibly Steve Reich), James Brown’s “Please Please Please,” Stan Kenton’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” “Philip Glass organ sound,” “Lollipop harmonica solo,” “helicopter sounds.”
On the upper half of the page, you see Bowie assembling “It’s No Game” from a disparate set of lines, a few later discarded (“gradual pagan” and “big head and drum” are in the early vocal take); on the lower half, he does the same for “Up the Hill Backwards,” including a line that Bowie pilfered from Hans Richter’s Art and Anti Art (a Nicholas Pegg discovery from a few years ago):
The other page, whose smuggled exhibit photographs are harder to read (Leah Kardos did her best to transcribe it), is more dense. It’s less a set of prospective lyrics than a word-pile of agitations, observations, rants (“RCA is richer than you’re [sic] whole country”), aphorisms, fears, phrasing/mixing ideas (“get on top of D.D.’s drum,” “Joy Div/ those terrible cockney accents” (see the title track)). Reading it through, however, you find more songs being formed, including “Ashes to Ashes” and, most of all, “Teenage Wildlife.”
Let’s write about society and events of international import… who’s going to lead the working clash? It ain’t me buddy. Over the page Bowie keeps circling back to the idea of an impending crisis (“won’t stop with Iran”). There’s going to be war… there’s going to be chaos…you’re not gonna turn away. Pricks will write songs about it and tell you ‘it’s the truth’. A few lines down, he becomes the prick: it’s not strange it happens every day… It’s the truth. (The working title of “Teenage Wildlife” was “It Happens Everyday.”)
Bowie kept paring and revising lines, sometimes to obscure an image, to make things less obvious. In “Ashes,” “little green dealer” becomes “little green wheels,” while “every day my reason is ebbing” is scrapped. “Fashion” was stripped of more overt lines that equate dance moves to street violence (“shake a fist, start a fight/ if you’re covered in blood, you’re doing it right”).
There’s a harshness in the lyrics of Scary Monsters, in part because of its paucity of rhyme (with notable exceptions—the hooky refrains of “Ashes to Ashes” and “Scream Like a Baby,” for instance). Bowie instead often uses consonance. The album opens, after Michi Hirota’s barrage of Japanese, with him using hard esses and ens to end his phrases, applying the occasional “oh” and “ev” sound as mortar within a line:
or “Scream Like a Baby,” whose verse’s phonic links are a hard traffic of ens, eds, gees, and uhs:
Or the Buddy Holly-esque “Ashes,” in which Bowie uses a three-note pattern as a rhythmic hook, while varying Major Tom’s message in meter or phrasing or length. Again, there’s nearly no rhyme in the verse, only a series of “ings” and one quick “in/syn.” It’s similar to the verses of “Changes,” another maze of phrasings that seem more akin to recitative in opera than standard pop singing. Further, in “Ashes,” Bowie’s lead vocal is interfered with by layers of mumbled, whispered counter-lines, as if one radio station is breaking into another’s airspace:
Half of me freezing, half of me boiling, I’m nowhere in between, Bowie wrote on his sketch sheet. A reactive person…too much data, possible events. Scary Monsters has recurring themes. A powerless rage at a collapsing world—it’s why Tom Verlaine’s “Kingdom Come” fits into the set: life as being sentenced to a prison farm, an armed guard always at watch from the tower. The streets are dangerous, the rooms are traps; he doesn’t know any hallways. A sense of entropy, of energy ebbing, of structures fraying and eroding. Major Tom falls to earth. Skylab falls from the sky, sneakers fall apart.
There’s the inability of art to provide answers, alternatives, anything of value, and the question of whether the concept of artistic progress was a cruel illusion. He’s never done anything out of the blue, nothing good, nothing bad. The kids keep at it, but they don’t stand a chance. “Teenage Wildlife” is Bowie watching his imitators and successors fighting over a kingdom already lost. “One flash of light but no smoking pistol” came from something he’d said about glam rock to a TV interviewer at the end of 1979—that while “in the beginning of the Seventies when it was sort of a bit dull, there was the idea of creating a flash of some kind. And the flash was created, but nobody was really found holding the smoking pistol. So [rock] sort of went off at tangents after that.”
When Scary Monsters plays in the background, so that you’re only hearing bits and scraps of lines, it seems as if the album is but one song, that it’s telling one story. It’s a horror film. More precisely, a horror documentary.
The word is that the hunted one is out there on his own. They do it over there but we don’t do it here. To be insulted by these fascists—it’s so degrading. One flash of light, but no smoking pistol. We’re legally crippled. They’re people I know, people I love, they seem so unhappy, dead or alive. She had a horror of rooms, she was tired, you can’t hide beat. I feel like a group of one. I know too well what’s keeping me here. He jumped into the furnace, singing old songs we loved.
This photograph is of an LP that I bought thirty years ago, for about four or five dollars, at In Your Ear, a used record store on Commonwealth Ave in Boston. It’s been with me ever since.
The album is slightly more than a foot in length and width. Its outer sleeve is still solid, if the spine has frayed by a thumb’s breadth at the center; the inner sleeve is in more parlous condition, being long engaged in a slow process of tearing in halves. The disc, over time, has nudged through substantial lengths of the sleeve’s bottom and sides. When I pull out the inner sleeve now, a black half-circle of vinyl will appear somewhere along an edge, reminding me that the natural state of things is entropy and that each year, this record’s resale value on Discogs diminishes.
A late developer, late in discarding teddy bear and comics (and to be honest, neither yet fully relinquished), no good at sports and an academic failure, sanctuary was sought in the art room at school, the harmless pursuit of the cissy.
Edward Bell, 2003, on his youth.
The cover and inner sleeve were designed in 1980 by Edward Bell. He’d studied graphics at Chelsea, photography at the Royal College of Art. “I started life as a photographer, but I found the medium limiting, so this fact led me to various manipulations: photo montage, over painting or even just using the photo as inspiration for a painting,” he told David Bowie News this year. As Bell said in 2003, “I was impatient with the technicalities of producing the perfect photograph; if a shadow fell in the wrong place, rather than adjust the lighting, I would airbrush, tint and montage. “
A photographer became an illustrator. This illustrator, having done a series of portraits of friends, got his first show at the Neal Street Gallery, in Covent Garden, London. It was attended by someone introduced as “an important client” and who wore, in Bell’s recollection, “an insipid yellow short-sleeved shirt and bright red trousers, but most damning of all, he wore dark glasses to examine the pictures.” This, of course, was David Bowie, who’d been told about Bell’s work by the photographer Brian Duffy.
Although Duffy was taking photos for use on Scary Monsters, Bowie decided that he wanted Bell to do the sleeve artwork, which would incorporate some of Duffy’s pictures. Instead Bell would deface them, covering one up with his own illustration, reducing other photos to postage-stamp size (others literally became postage stamps, in a sheet included with early issues of the album).
After Bowie was photographed in the Pierrot outfit, Bell asked him to muss his hair, smear his makeup, look disheveled. Become a clown scowling backstage after the show, looking cranked off and sour. Then Bell sketched him.
“This was an image no longer wistful, pretty, safe or fey, but a glimpse of glamour in its dangerous extremity; decadent and blatantly seductive,” Bell wrote in his memoir. Bowie told Bell to design the cover however he’d like, only asking for his hair to be tinted red in the illustration (it was a dun color in early to mid-1980—see, below, the photograph used for the “Fashion” sleeve, which was the first shot taken of Bowie at the Pierrot session). “In America I’m known as the red haired bisexual,” Bowie explained to Bell—he apparently needed to maintain the brand for a bit longer.
The cover and sleeve design went through various drafts. I’d wager a guess that Bell may have drawn on two sources as a starting point. Derek Boshier’s cover design for Lodger has a muted, off-white color as its foundation and a similar set of jumbled images, meant to signify something opaque.
And Gerald Scarfe’s design for Pink Floyd’s The Wall (as with Lodger, a recently-issued album at the time). Again a white backdrop, again a series of images—here, cartoon grotesques— “breaking through” the backdrop to catch the viewer’s eye.
Perhaps most obviously, the use of hand lettering, in bold strokes in black ink, for the lyrics on the inner sleeves of both albums.
The brilliance of Bell’s cover design is how it illustrates the mood of the album, its feeling of resurgence and collapse, the concept of a long-running circus shuttering for the winter, maybe forever. David Bowie, throughout the Seventies, was always on the cover of his latest album in the center of the frame: displaying a fresh look, a new haircut, a new caprice. Pre-Raphaelite decadent sprawled on a couch. Tragic silent movie star. Glam icon in an alleyway and phone box. 22nd Century pinup. Freakshow attraction. Hollywood glamour queen. A Man who has Fallen to Earth. An emissary from a lost future.
And here, the sour Pierrot. But something’s not right. The Bowie photograph that should be here has instead been torn in two, the smaller half confined to the back cover. Overlaid upon much of the photo is a haughty-looking cartoon figure, which stands off-center, confined to the left half of the front cover. While one’s eye is still drawn to Bowie’s face, there’s so much “empty” space on the cover that Bowie’s usually definitional image becomes unsettled—you’re as much looking at a shadow of his profile, or wondering what his face looks like in the photograph you will never see. (Again, Lodger is a starting point, as the record buyer only saw Bowie’s splayed legs on its front cover).
On the back cover, more substitutions—Bell’s illustrations supplant Sukita’s “Heroes” photograph, Duffy’s Lodger shot, the Low profile. The past becomes a faded, distorted cartoon of itself (Bowie as the Scary Monsters and Super Heroes of his inspiration). “David Bowie” is a set of postage stamps or miniaturized Polaroids. It has the look of a child’s scrapbook, especially when seen as a two-sided whole.
Like many others who saw the David Bowie Is show, I was stunned by how large Bell’s painting is. Having only known it as an album sleeve for much of my life, I found its true form astonishing. I’d never imagined it was such a physical presence—it seemed to take up a fourth of a museum wall. The LP sleeve itself is a reduction, a substitution, a diminishing of an original grandeur.
Bell and Bowie became friends, in the way Bowie was friends with many people: he’d vanish for years, then appear without notice. He gave Bell (who also did the Tin Machine II cover in 1991) a postal address in Switzerland—Bell would mail the occasional letter or postcard, to no response. Then a call would come in.
“Instead [of writing] he would, completely out of the blue, telephone,” Bell said in his memoir. “Years might even pass, then I’d be shopping at Tesco, or digging a vegetable patch on the west coast of Ireland, or sitting on a Welsh hilltop painting a sky, when the mobile would ring.” Bowie, calling from Switzerland or Japan or New York, usually at the dead of night of whichever timezone he was in. They’d talk for hours about anything under the sun, then another year or two would pass. It was Bowie as a lighthouse keeper, a harbor master, making his solitary rounds over the years, but mostly existing in his absences, as he does on the cover of Scary Monsters.
Talking with Bowie makes me more than unusually aware of the manifest absurdities inherent in the interview process. Why should Bowie tell me anything at all? He has little to gain and much to lose by doing so. We’re total strangers compelled by our respective positions and professions to confront each other for a ludicrously short time.
Angus MacKinnon, 1980
The promotion of Scary Monsters was relatively modest by Bowie standards. He wasn’t touring the album; his only TV performance for it was on The Tonight Show, which few in his home country saw at the time; he acted in The Elephant Man throughout what, typically, would have been his album’s promo cycle.
In a handful of late 1980 interviews—with the NME and Rolling Stone, the Los Angeles and London Times, some TV and radio spots, Radio One’s Andy Peebles—Bowie talked through the album he’d made the previous spring (an eon ago, by his Seventies standards) and sketched where he’d go in the Eighties. Whether by circumstance or design, he was particularly open (or, at least, apparently so) and retrospective.
Angus MacKinnon, NME (interview conducted early August 1980; published 13 September 1980).
Angus MacKinnon worked at the NME in the punk end of the Seventies, becoming close friends with Public Image Ltd’s Jah Wobble (MacKinnon had reviewed Lodger, saying it felt like Bowie was “ready for religion”). In August 1980, the NME sent him and photographer Anton Corbijn to Chicago for a week to interview Bowie during the run of Elephant Man there (RCA footed the bill, booking journalists in the high-end Whitehall Hotel—a truly lost era). Conducted over two days, it’s among the high-water marks of Bowie interviews, a credit to MacKinnon’s skill and to Bowie’s receptive frame of mind. As fascinated by his life as anyone was, Bowie precisely and coolly assessed his Seventies, which seemed like a science fiction novel in retrospect.
Later, MacKinnon said he thought he got what “the interview” meant for Bowie—an opportunity to play a character (see his coke-freak Nosferatu performance for the benefit of Cameron Crowe in the mid-Seventies) but most of all, to do “an intensive form of self-therapy.” Bowie appeared to live in a state of “continual reassessment and often comprehensive rewriting of his past…although one of the more profoundly amoral people I’ve ever met, Bowie is nonetheless hamstrung by an acuity of self-awareness that constantly threatens to bemuse or even overwhelm him.”
That said, Bowie the son of a PR man, had been adept at media manipulation since he was a teenager. He could, in a flash, discern who an interviewer was, what their likely angle would be, how they could be flattered, their likely status in the publication they worked for. Most of all, what role they wanted him to play. Bowie is “uncannily adept at telling you exactly what he thinks you want to hear,” MacKinnon wrote. His charm, his wit, his knowledge of what made for a great quote—how a line would play if blown up, marquee-style, in a subhead, or if used as a tart caption to a photograph—his ability to quickly draw you into his confidence: these were his weapons, an armory so colossal that as a reporter, MacKinnon said, you were constantly scrambling to determine if Bowie was contradicting something he’d said only a few minutes before. It was exhausting to challenge his routine habit of blaming “characters” for “his own more irresponsible, or inexplicable actions.”
MacKinnon begins with basic questions—Bowie’s concept of John Merrick in The Elephant Man, cutting to thoughts on Man Who Fell to Earth (Bowie: “Newton is a far better person at the end of the film…when he first comes down, he doesn’t give a shit about anybody”) and Just a Gigolo (“that film was a cack”). MacKinnon then strings a line from MWFTE to Station to Station, inspiring a Bowie mea culpa for the Thin White Duke “England needs a Hitler” period. (M: I was there and came away thinking you were sort of fascist maniac. B: “I was out of my mind, totally crazed”). “This whole racist thing,” Bowie swears, was because “I was in the depths of mythology. I had found King Arthur.” He attests that he’s worked “with black musicians for the past six or seven years, and we’d all talk about it together….about the magical side of the whole Nazi campaign.” (One can only imagine poor Dennis Davis genially nodding through these sessions.) And a wild bit of psychological legend:
All that stuff was flying around, buzzing around the skies. I could see it. Everywhere I looked there were these great demons of the past, demons of the future on the battlegrounds of one’s emotional plain…Mixed up too, of course, were my own fucking characters.
Bowie jumps around the chessboard. Praise for Berlin, place of restoration; a ritual curse on Los Angeles (“the fucking place should be wiped off the face of the earth. To be anything to do with rock and roll and to go and live in Los Angeles is I think just heading for disaster. It really is.”) MacKinnon pushes him to start talking about the Scary Monsters songs at last. A few lines of thought begin here. The idea of “the future” being another Sixties trick. A detaching from Fripp and Eno, whom he describes as being “intellectuals” as compared to his more instinctive type of songwriting. Thoughts on the “grimness” of contemporary fashion, with a dig at the Blitz Kids he’d recently seen in London (and hired, for the “Ashes to Ashes” video).
They resume talking a few days later, on the stage of the Blackstone, The Elephant Man’s theater. This time, thanks to MacKinnon’s choice to burn through “simple, factual questions” first and free-style for a half hour, a compelling back-and-forth develops. Bowie admits that “he can’t write young” anymore, that rock music is a dead end for him, and wonders what will he, in the end, really be remembered for? MacKinnon later said he felt like he’d gotten through, finally got Bowie to say something real, only to consider that this was possibly another conversational trick of Bowie’s, and furthermore, what does “real” even mean? Why do we, as journalists, as readers, expect this from pop singers, when we don’t offer it ourselves?
M: Those lines from ‘Ashes To Ashes’ spring to mind: “I’ve never done good things/I’ve never done bad things/I’ve never done anything out of the blue.” You seem to be saying that you’re not prepared to judge your own achievements. Do you feel any—how shall I put it?—guilt about having helped propagate the sort of delusions we’re talking about?…
B: Those three particular lines represent a continuing, returning feeling of inadequacy over what I’ve done. (Bowie absently traces a finger around his mouth then proceeds, choosing his words very carefully) I have an awful lot of reservations about what I’ve done inasmuch as I don’t feel much of it has any import at all. And then I have days when of course it all feels very important to me, that I’ve contributed an awful lot. But I’m not awfully happy with what I’ve done in the past actually.
M: So what would you include amongst your positive achievements?
B: The idea that one doesn’t have to exist purely on one defined set of ethics and values, that you can investigate other areas and other avenues of perception and try and apply them to everyday life. I think I’ve tried to do that. I think I’ve done that fairly successfully. At times, even if only on a theoretical level, I’ve managed that. As far as everyday life goes, I don’t think so… I have this great long chain with a ball of middle-classness at the end of it which keeps holding me back and that I keep sort of trying to fight through. I keep trying to find the Duchamp in me, which is harder and harder to find (laughs)….
And a coda, where Bowie considers old age from the vantage point of 33.
Kurt Loder, Rolling Stone; interview, early August 1980; 13 November 1980 issue.
One sign of Bowie’s diminished commercial presence in the US is that he didn’t get the cover of Rolling Stone for this interview—Mary Tyler Moore did, for her role in Ordinary People.
Bowie’s still apparently content to accept being a famous second-tier artist, commercially. “More and more, I’m prepared to relinquish sales…by sticking to my guns about the kind of music I’m going to make.” More differentiation from Fripp and Eno. “They’re out there cerebrally, you know? And I’m just not out there. I sort of bludgeon along through their strange ways and paths and articulate to the best of my ability what the fuck I’m tryin’ to put on a record.” Again, the idea of the future being humbler, dirtier, more brutal than the Sixties thought it was going to be. “Forget your high-tech. We’re not gonna be prancing around in silver suits or anything like that. It’s all blood and guts from here on out.”
With a few exceptions, Bowie was charming and intriguingly vapid in his post-Seventies American TV interviews, rising to the challenge of the medium. No exception here: some Lodger-era guff about being a perpetual traveler (“Mombasa, Berlin and Kyoto…are my main ports of call”) and praise for his Elephant Man cast. The visual—Bowie looking like a rockabilly Eloi in a purple turtleneck before a backdrop of potted ferns—is exquisite, though.
Robert Hilburn, LA Times,interview 5 September; 21 September 1980 edition
Conducted in an LA dressing room during a Tonight Show rehearsal, this interview is perhaps most notable for one of Bowie’s first, ugly repudiations of his bisexuality—a preview of his 1983 press strategy. For an LA paper, Bowie provides a new variation on his usual escape-from-LA narrative. “I may have been living through a breakdown and not knowing it…In Berlin, I lived quite the reverse style of life that I’d been living. It was designed as a positive step to make myself learn how to relate back to the real world.” The Low era as a purging, “throwing everything out and starting over again.” Yet another sign that despite his protestations, his declining commercial fortunes concern him. “I never tried to define my audience and exploit it like a tobacco company…I just hoped the audience would come along.”
The best of the TV interviews of the period. Bowie offers his story of how he got his album’s title from a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes box notice of “Scary Monsters and Super Heroes” (“Supermen and Nosferatus….as I was writing a New York album, it seemed the perfect collective title for the bits and pieces I was writing”). On regular Broadway theatergoers: “they had heard of me but had some kind of really corrupted idea of what I was about. I suppose they’ve got a different impression of me now: little do they know.”
Gordon Burn, Sunday Times Magazine, interview 2 October 1980; 30 November 1980 issue.
A dishy look at Bowie, thespian (“he looked eager, the way contestants often do on quiz shows when they think they’ve got the answer…David was wearing a cowl-neck sweater, possibly a lady’s…he has eye-teeth like fangs”) and someone apparently bracing for future conformity.
“I have so many streaks of sensibleness that it’s frightening. I keep getting drawn back to such a logical, conservative me but it wears me out trying to fight it. Fighting it used to lead me to that very rough, drug-oriented, forceful kind of lifestyle which makes one on edge all the time. Now, having beaten that back, I’m confronted with the basic facts of where I came from and who I am…I am still, as you can see, fighting.”
20/20, broadcast 13 November 1980 (presumably filmed ca. October).
A bog-standard “This Is David Bowie” bio intro (DB was apparently “born on the other side of the tracks in Brixton”) leads into footage of Bowie drawing (“he’s produced a gallery full of paintings”), It comes off as a butchered 10-minute reduction of a scrapped documentary, in which Bowie occasionally appears to say little of import.
Countdown, broadcast 16 November 1980 (filmed ca. October).
Bowie, filmed in an NYC Japanese restaurant, gives off the vibe of a charming civil servant being asked to justify some questionable expense account statements. The bit where the interviewer asks about Bowie’s 1967 debut album, to DB’s “what in the hell are you bringing this up for?” expressions, is a joy.
Andy Peebles, Radio One, taped 7 December 1980.
The last great interview of the period, parts of which were used for a promotional LP, with Bowie going into each song on Scary Monsters.
On Major Tom in 1980:
What would be the complete dissolution [of] the great dream that was being propounded when they shot him into space…When he did get up there, he wasn’t quite sure why he’d been put there and…now we come to him 10 years later and we find the whole thing has soured, ‘cos there was no reason…the technological ego that got him up there…was a potpourri of technological ideas. The most disastrous thing I could think of is that he’d find solace in some kind of heroin-type drug, the cosmic space itself is feeding him an addiction and now he wants to return to the womb from whence he came…
Peebles had flown to New York to talk to Bowie and, seizing opportunity, talked to John Lennon and Yoko Ono the day before. Little more than a day after Bowie talked with Peebles, he’d be standing before a TV set, watching news reports about his friend’s murder.
Scary Monsters was a greatly unrealized album on stage, as Bowie would never perform half of its songs. It’s in part because the tour on which he would’ve likely sung them, a proposed 1981 venture, never came to be.
An alleged “spokesman” said in late 1980, while Bowie was promoting the album, that Bowie planned to devote three months in 1981 to “live work” while Bowie told MacKinnon “next spring—I want to play smaller places.” The tour was barely in the sketch stages, apparently, when DB pulled the plug after John Lennon’s murder. Given that he was also talking about doing an exhibition of his paintings and video work in 1981, and was in negotiations for film and TV roles, there’s a strong likelihood that a 1981 tour wouldn’t have been on the scale of, say, 1978. More something like a month of shows in the UK and Europe, a month or two in major markets in North America, maybe a Japanese coda.
When Bowie did return to live work in 1983, he was now promoting Let’s Dance to a new, broader audience, one with less of a taste for oddity. The emphasis was on new hits, old hits, a few obscurities for the die-hards. Scary Monsters was represented only by its charting singles.
Songs Never Performed, Apparently Never Rehearsed
“It’s No Game (Pt. 1 & Pt. 2).” The Bowie film archivist Nacho proposed a dream 1981 setlist not long ago, in which Bowie would open and close sets with the two “It’s No Games.” It’s a great idea, but given that “It’s No Game (Pt. 1)” sounds utterly brutal to sing, the idea of Bowie opening with it for months seems a bit unlikely.
“Kingdom Come.” Not a shock: a song that audiences mostly wouldn’t have recognized, and as with “It’s No Game,” another wear-and-tear of a vocal.
Songs Rehearsed, Never Performed
“Scream Like a Baby.” Rehearsed for Glass Spider in 1987; didn’t make the cut. The rehearsal tapes show that the band had the song down well, if Bowie sounds borderline camp.
“Because You’re Young”: As with “Scream,” a reject from the Glass Spider set; as with “Scream,” it likely would’ve worked well enough. Though the idea of Bowie’s gang of theater-kid “street” dancers interpreting this song makes me grateful it didn’t make the cut.
Songs Sort-of Performed
“Up the Hill Backwards.” Used as part of the opening sequence for Glass Spider: Bowie didn’t sing it, his dancers lip-synced it. The Legs & Co. interpretation from Top of the Pops in 1981 is superior and more weird.
“Teenage Wildlife.”Debuted in the Outside tour in 1995, and a highlight of those shows—sung as Bowie watched teenage Nine Inch Nails fans pack up, leaving behind empty rows, it had a fresh poignancy. Carlos Alomar provided continuity, Reeves Gabrels did a fine American art-weirdo’s take on Robert Fripp.
“Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps).” Debuted in 1983 on Serious Moonlight, but its definitive live versions were Bowie’s duets with Trent Reznor in 1995. A Scary Monsters track tailored for the following decade.
“Fashion.”The “Fame” of Scary Monsters songs—debuted in 1983 and performed in nearly every tour afterward. Had the potential to be irritating on stage, and sometimes was. Its live peak was 1996-97, as it suited the Earthling era well.
“Ashes to Ashes.”Like “Fashion,” often found in his 1983-and-afterward setlists, though Bowie put it on ice in the Nineties after Sound + Vision. For me, he’d never manage on stage to rival the studio version—he tended to grapple around the song and do an approximation. Something was always off: the bassline, the keyboards, his vocal. If I had to choose a performance, I’d go with its slightly-shambolic Tonight Show debut in 1980, in which a pick-up band (GE Smith! Steve Goulding!) and Bowie punch into the song, one still so new that Bowie bungles a verse lyric. They advance, stumble back; something keeps evading them but they keep scraping away at it. There’s a beauty in the effort.
Crystal Japan Epilogue
“Crystal Japan,” for a while during the Scary Monsters sessions, was intended as the album’s closer. Yet after Bowie decided instead to end the LP with a reprise of the opening track, he cast “Crystal Japan” loose. It first appeared as a Japanese single in 1980, then as the B-side of “Up the Hill Backwards” the following year; it’s likely, however, that many Bowie fans first heard it as a bonus track on the 1992 Ryko reissue of Scary Monsters—that’s where Trent Reznor, who nicked its melody for his “A Warm Place,” discovered the song. (Reznor confessed this to a cracking-up Bowie during an MTV interview.)
Had it closed Scary Monsters, “Crystal Japan” would have changed the album’s tone, brightened its aspect. “It’s No Game (Pt. 2)” is cyclicality—the album ends as it began (furthered by Tony Visconti adding a tape spool-out sound to parallel the “roll tape” intro of Pt. 1)—and exhaustion, with the rage of “Pt. 1” cooled to a weary acceptance of daily horrors. “Crystal Japan,” had it capped off a hard, brutal album, would have offered a respite, an exit, a future. Something akin to “Radio 4,” the closer of PiL’s Metal Box in 1979—an epilogue that, at last, lets in the sun.
Who knows why Bowie pulled the track. Perhaps if it couldn’t be a finale, it just didn’t fit in anywhere else. Maybe he wanted to put the “Berlin” era firmly behind him, and so yanked an instrumental that might remind listeners of “Moss Garden.” Or he felt that a respite and an exit weren’t what was needed at the time.
Bowie had agreed to do a TV ad for a Japanese shochu manufacturer (he needed the money, he said, adding that he thought the track would get more airplay than his singles would on radio). So he had to come up with an instrumental for a 30-second bit in which he’d appear to be a visiting extraterrestrial a) on holiday at a Kyoto temple or b) relaxing in the mothership, which, nicely, has a piano and a wet bar.
During the Scary Monsters sessions, Bowie assembled the track himself on synthesizer (no idea which models—he may have still been using the Low/”Heroes” set, which included an ARP Solina, ARP Pro Soloist and a Chamberlin M1), with Visconti’s only contribution being a treated falsetto vocal. It’s unknown whether DB wrote the piece after filming the ad in Japan (during the break, March 1980, between the LP’s New York and London sessions), or if he’d been working on it for a while, perhaps as far back as “Heroes” or Lodger.
With its yearning melodies and placid feel, it’s a quiet world tucked away within a greater, turbulent one—the sound of a warm place, as Reznor might say. The exiled ending of Scary Monsters, “Crystal Japan” was fated to forever be alone, a beautiful fragment.
This project’s final year could be 2014—we’ll see how it goes. Xmas post, 2013.
But barring another Bowie album in 2015, this is the last Christmas post of the blog’s “primary” life. Xmas post, 2014.
2016 should bring…the rollout of a new music blog in the spring (ish). Xmas post, 2015 (for the life of me, I don’t remember what this idea was—it obviously didn’t happen).
It’s an established annual tradition that this blog will run a Christmas post and say, “well, this could be the last Xmas post, as we’re almost done.” And then Bowie would put out some new thing. But this time, I am very nearly sure, is the end. I can’t imagine I won’t get through the last nine songs before Dec. 2017. Xmas post, 2016.
I’m assuming there’ll be a Tin Machine and/or a “Black Tie-to-whenever” box set in the new year. Xmas post, 2018.
At this point, you should really be betting against me, hard. So here, I’ll try to work some reverse magic: I expect next year that absolutely nothing of remote interest will be released by the Bowie estate. See you in December 2020!
I’d like to wish everyone a very merry Christmas, happy New Year, happy New Decade (or happy New Year Before the Decade Officially Ends on 31 December 2020, for the pedants). All my best, whether you’re a longtime reader or someone who pops in once in a while. The blog will continue, as it has been for some time now, with the occasional new entry on older “lost” songs that are reissued (one will probably be up next month); there’s also my new writing on 64 Quartets and the Patreon.
To everyone who bought Ashes to Ashesthis year, thank you; for those who did so and also came to the readings, thank you again. I’m grateful to Bob Stanley, Rob Sheffield, Owen Hatherley and Billy Hough for hosting the readings, and to Rough Trade (NYC and London), McNally Jackson in NYC, and the Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester, UK. Thanks to Tariq Goddard and Repeater Books. Two friends who were essential to the writing of Ashes to Ashes have books of their own being released next year: keep an eye out for Rahawa Haile‘s In Open Country and Mairead Case‘s Tiny.
A Bonus: Chapter End (Last). The Best of Bowie: the 2010s
My top 10 favorite songs of David Bowie’s last decade.
1. ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore (LP version). The Next Day had shown that Bowie was back; “‘Tis a Pity,” in its wild solo demo or its Blackstar take, showed that he wanted to go somewhere else. One of the loopiest songs that he ever wrote: you can find a world within it, then another one lurking within that. The studio version has a slight edge thanks to Donny McCaslin’s career-topper of a performance and Bowie sounding as if he was back in the Marquee in London, cheering from a crowd of Mods.
2. Blackstar. A counterpart to “Station to Station,” at the other end of the line. A great fake-out of a song, ominous and lovely and strange, shot through with jokes: “I’m the Great I Am” invokes both the Book of Exodus and Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Henry VIII, I Am.” It’s a joy that Bowie, at age 68, could sit down and say, “well, I suppose I need an epic,” then whisk one together like an omelet.
3. Love Is Lost. The highlight of The Next Day: love as being under house arrest. The harmonies!
4. Dollar Days. Raging against the dying of the light, then sitting down to watch the sunset.
5. Where Are We Now? It was, in retrospect, the perfect way, the only way, for him to return. His last season begins with a notice that it’s going to end, sooner than you think. How Bowie sings “you never knew that, that I could do that,” in a way that suggests he’d never thought he could, either.
6. I Can’t Give Everything Away. As with all the Blackstar tracks, it’s as funny as it’s haunting—there’s a wonderful petulance in the title phrase, along with a deep sadness. The last, inevitably-disappointing box set that the estate releases should have this as its title, with a photograph of the sealed Bowie vault on the cover. It’s Bowie’s “Into the Mystic“—a fading away, a dissolution into sound.
7. Sue (Maria Schneider version). Bowie’s most essential collaboration since the Reeves Gabrels era is one in which he began with fewer chips on the table—the eternal dilettante meets a brilliant composer and arranger with a lifetime steeped in jazz, a genre Bowie would only dabble in. It wound up as a partnership of equals: Bowie’s distinctive presence is central to the track but he’s not allowed to dominate it.
8. The Next Day. Loud, full of piss and vinegar, clipped, blown out—the sound of his early 2000s “rock” style being set afire. An unreconciled life.
9. No Plan. Nothing has changed, everything has changed.
10. Like a Rocket Man. I came to love this throwaway track while writing the last chapter of the book. Utterly shameless steals from all over the place, a possible last dig at Elton John, rewriting the “coke magus Bowie” years as a cartoon serial. It has one of his last great lines buried in it: “Now I wish today that yesterday was just tomorrow.” RIP, DB.