If You Can See Me

September 18, 2015


If You Can See Me.

“If You Can See Me” is dead-center in The Next Day‘s original sequence, like a scarecrow meant to send the half-hearted listener packing, with its chromatic chord changes, gear-shifts in meter, aggressive off-kilter top melodies and a lyric gnomic even by Bowie standards. Tony Visconti was struck by Bowie’s writing here, praising the “very wide, beautiful, crunchy jazz chords, with time signatures that Dave Brubeck would be proud of.”

Much of The Next Day reflects earlier periods in Bowie’s creative life—Bowie not sampling himself so much as he’ll “remix” the style of a Scary Monsters or Man Who Sold the World to fit current moods and obsessions. Seen in this light, The Next Day is something of a parallel world’s Bowie greatest hits record—slightly familiar songs as seen darkly through funhouse mirrors.

So “If You Can See Me” (and “Heat”) are the album’s most direct representatives of the Leon/Outside years. Yet where the Leon/Outside tracks were born from a band’s free improvisations, guided by Brian Eno’s “random” suggestions and steered by the likes of Reeves Gabrels and Mike Garson, “If You Can See Me” is essentially Bowie, sitting at a keyboard at home, rigging together an Outside song by himself, as if working with memories of old parameters.

The song’s built, as Bowie sings in one verse, as “chutes and ladders….from nowhere to nothing.” The D-flat intro and refrains, in a punishing 5/4 time, slowly climb from an opening G-flat chord to A-flat to B-flat minor until, after briefly losing footing and sliding down to Ab, it finally reaches the peak, resolving hard home on D-flat to end the sequence. This feeling of a desperate upward movement is furthered by Bowie’s phrasing in the refrains, where he sounds as if he’s moving with a great weight on his back, until ending with an exhausted, manically triumphant boast.

And the 4/4 verses are a shaky huddle around F minor, mainly sung over a drum loop and a stabbing keyboard line, with a syncopated bass pattern (with a flatted fifth note) that buttresses an E major chord guitar riff. As Clifford Slapper (who kindly puzzled out the song for me) said, the verses feel “jumpy, nervous, as if dancing on hot coals, before finding brief respite on F minor periodically (e.g., on “and meet me across the river”).” Again, Bowie added to the unsettled harmonic mood with a phrasing in which he’s a contrary force to the bassline hook, mainly keeping to one note, dragging lines across bars.

His lyric has further shades of Outside—hints at ritual sacrifice (“take this knife”) and serial killing (“a love of violence and dread of sighs”). The ghost of Ramona A. Stone walks again (“I should wear your old red dress”—recall “Paddy, who’s been wearing Miranda’s clothes?”), as do older specters—the utopian genocidal Saviour Machine, the dictator of “We Are Hungry Men,” the Führerling Alternative Candidate. (“Identities switch between someone who may be Bowie and a politician,” Visconti said of “If You Can See Me”.) Its last refrain finds Bowie in the ecstatic register of a fanatic, a conqueror or perhaps even God Himself, leveling curses, sacking the towns, threatening annihilation. The last calls of “If you can see me, I can see you“, slowly decreasing in tempo, are like a child-god’s taunts (“crusade, tyrant, domination,” Bowie offered as a précis.) But Bowie has always enjoyed playing villains, as they tend to get the best lines.

Does it all hold together? The production veers all over the place, with Bowie’s chintzy-sounding synthesizer lines getting more prominence in the mix than Zachary Alford’s kinetic drum patterns; Tony Levin is a quagmire foundation (in the brief post-apocalyptic coda, Levin grumbles off into the distance); Gail Ann Dorsey gets her most prominent spot on the album with her whirling vocal intro (shades of Clare Torrey on Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky“) and adds a high ceiling to some of Bowie’s lines. Bowie seems delighted to have managed to set the thing in motion, relishing the rhythm of lines like “American Anna, fantastic Alsatian” and having a blast playing Shiva, Destroyer of Worlds in his last refrain.

Impenetrable, viciously-sung, a strange dark work of labored ambition, “If You Can See Me” wound up being the Next Day track which most hinted at Bowie’s next move, the “Sue”/”Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” single in 2014.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. mid-September 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day.

Again, much thanks owed to Clifford Slapper (this song was a monster to figure out).

Top: Nikola Tamindzic, “SS1,” from his series “Interbeing.” See you next month, Nikola. (Again, October 17 in NYC.)

Bowie Night in NYC

September 15, 2015


If you live in the New York area, or are visiting NYC on Saturday, October 17, some good news: I’ll be doing a Rebel Rebel reading at Q.E.D., a fine establishment that’s located in Astoria, one of the most charming neighborhoods in Queens.

Ah, but it’s not merely a reading. It’s “Lord of the Bowies” night, at which the comedian Christian Finnegan and I will co-host an epic Bowie trivia contest. The winner will get a signed book and other swag. There will also be lots of Bowie music: I will lobby for “Laughing Gnome” and “Rupert the Riley” in the playlist. So if you’re a Bowie fan, I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday night.

Hope you can make it. It should be fun.

You can buy tickets NOW. I recommend that you do so, as there’s fairly limited seating. For directions and other information, Q.E.D.’s main site should have all the answers you need (here’s their FAQ). But if not, leave a comment and I’ll try to help.

I’d Rather Be High

September 10, 2015


I’d Rather Be High.
I’d Rather Be High (Venetian Mix).
I’d Rather Be High (Louis Vuitton ads).

Promoting Lodger in 1979, Bowie said his intention (which he’d only realized after he made the album) had been to create new situations by jarring together different elements. So you had Turkish stage-folk with a reggae base, or an Errol Flynn sea pirate scenario set to a Harmonia backing track. Something of the same is found in “I’d Rather Be High,” which shoehorns in Berlin reveries, Beatles vocals, Waughian satire, war reportage, Nineties neo-psychedelia and, in a later incarnation as the soundtrack of a Louis Vuitton ad, New Romantic trappings. It’s a traffic jam of references and signifiers.

Over a progression that plays three-card monte games in its D major key,* “I’d Rather Be High” has a dense lyric whose opening verse alone references Vladimir Nabokov’s last Russian-language novel, The Gift, which Nabokov wrote in Hitler’s Berlin from 1935 to 1937. As Roger Boylan wrote, The Gift is Nabokov’s “homage to the world that was,” his farewell to the Russian language and “the gift” of Russian literature, and “in its ambiguities, its poetry, its wordplay, and its structural originality, a road map to the rest of Nabokov’s work.”

One hot summer’s day, Fyodor Konstantinovich Godunov-Cherdyntsev (a barely-disguised self-portrait of a young Russian émigré aristocrat and writer in Berlin), goes to the park district of Grunewald, one of a mass of hearty Berliners. “The sun licked me all over with its big, smooth tongue. I gradually felt I was becoming moltenly transparent, that I was permeated with flame and disintegrated and dissolved…My personal I…had somehow disintegrated and dissolved…assimilated to the shimmering of the summer forest with its satiny pine needles…and spermy odor of sun-warmed grass.” Or, as Bowie sings more prosaically, “brilliant and naked/ just the way that authors look.”

What’s interesting is that Bowie may not have read The Gift at all, as the passage which I quoted is included in a book that Bowie very much had read: Otto Friedrich’s Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s. Friedrich’s survey of Weimar Berlin, along with Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novellas, fueled Bowie’s conception of Berlin when he moved there. Friedrich was one of Bowie’s maps to an imagined Berlin, and whenever Bowie wasn’t content with the depleted, heroin-filled West Berlin of 1977, he could escape into pre-war fantasies: bicycling around sporting Isherwood’s Weimar-era haircut, going to the Brücke Museum, rereading Friedrich’s book over breakfast at the Anderes Ufer.

“I’d Rather Be High” has a similar feel of timelines overlapping and collapsing, like a floor of a tenement giving way and crashing down into the lower flats. The second verse, set in some grim tea room in a vague wartime London, references Evelyn Waugh’s WWII novel Officers and Gentlemen (“Clare” could be Ivor Claire, a soldier facing desertion charges) while “Lady Manners” suggests Lady Diana Cooper (née Manners), muse and patron of a World War I group of intellectuals who mostly died in the trenches.** Onward and outward the cracked storyline spins. Clare turns up in Cairo to join his regiment, winds up back in England at his parents’ gravestone.

Set against all of this time flux is the “present day” of the refrains: a soldier on a battlefield somewhere (it could be Gallipoli or Fallujah), shooting at men in the sand, wishing he could be tripping on something just to get out of the hell of reality. Tony Visconti had an oddly specific take on the lyric: “the lament of a demobbed Second World War soldier who would rather succumb to base emotions than be a human being.” (He also took pains to note that “Bowie does not want to be high. He is clean and has been an AA member for years.”). “Indifference, miasma, pressgang,” was all Bowie has had to say.

Bowie tended to consume books by the barrelful and he’d raided the likes of Alan Sillitoe for plotlines as early as his debut album in 1967. But something like “I’d Rather Be High,” so thickly-settled with literary references that there’s little room to breathe, conjures a world primarily existing in books and old memories of books. Nile Rodgers told the story that Bowie, having invited Rodgers to his home in Switzerland in 1982, spent hours showing him things—paintings, treasured records, books—so that Rodgers could get a sense of how Bowie’s mind worked. There’s something like this in “I’d Rather Be High,” which dares listeners to puzzle it out—it’s Bowie indicating that much of his “lost” years were spent lost in old books, and it could be as close to a portrait of his current mindset than anything else on the album.

In November 2013, Bowie showed up in a Louis Vuitton ad, directed by Romain Gavras. It starred the model Arizona Muse, who worked the Vuitton merchandise while Bowie and a Louis XVI court setting provided her with a lavish, slightly surreal backdrop. There are nods to the ball scene in Labyrinth (Bowie as another aging satyr ogling a young woman), Adam Ant’s “Prince Charming,” Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and so forth. Creepy doubles, a festooned man who looks like a plague victim, a set of levitating monks: it comes off like a budget-bursting episode of Russell T. Davies’ version of Doctor Who.

For the ad, Bowie offered a new mix of the song with prominent harpsichord (played by Henry Hey, as per the Next Day Extra credits, which suggests the “Venetian” mix was planned for the Vuitton ad early on, or that perhaps it was a scrapped earlier mix of the track that Bowie earmarked for the ad—some versions of the ad used a harpsichord-only variation in spots).

Hey’s harpsichord complemented Gerry Leonard’s lead guitar riff, which, in the track’s original mix, dulled itself through repetition (that said, the original mix better showcased Zachary Alford’s tricky shuffle pattern). While the “Venetian” mix couldn’t salvage the song’s grating bridge, which pops off with Bowie shouting “teenage sex—YEAAH!”, it added batteries of new vocals to the gorgeous outro, whose long-held “flyyyyying”s (in debt to John Lennon’s lysergic vocals on “Rain” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”) were some of Bowie’s finest performances on the record.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. mid-September 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day. The “Venetian mix” was included on The Next Day Extra.

* Mainly by moves to avoid going “home” to D major. See the verse (Bm-D-Bm-G-A), the refrain (A-Em-A-Dm-F#m-Dm-D) and the bridge (D-A-E-C7-A). There’s also another possible Nabokov nod in the intro: A-D-A.

** The connection’s likely owed to a character in Waugh’s novel, “Mrs. Reginald Stitch,” whom Waugh reportedly based on Lady Manners.

Top: Miley Cyrus, NYC, 2013.

Love Is Lost

September 1, 2015


Love Is Lost.
Love Is Lost (Hello Steve Reich mix).
Love Is Lost (Hello Steve Reich mix, single edit).

Bowie’s public relationship with love is one of a man who’s never shaken his suspicions. There were times when he’d write a “Letter To Hermione” or a “Be My Wife” in his soul’s winter hours, “The Wedding” to crown a summertime. But the garden-variety love song has rarely interested him, nor has he done them well. A key song remains “Soul Love,” which he wrote when he was 24 and which, seemingly, became the guiding principle for much of his adult life.

Love, in “Soul Love,” is a plague, an infestation, a communal delusion. Love manifests itself, it binds and corrupts, it blinds and weakens. Love is a thing unto itself, not a feeling shared by two people; it’s summoned into existence like a djinn from a bottle, or born like some ill-starred child. It wreaks havoc by doing just what you wish it to. Black magic. How does the line go again? It’s not really work: it’s just the power to charm. Best to keep clear of it.

“Love Is Lost,” one of the great tracks on The Next Day, finds an older man talking up the years to an older self. “It’s the darkest hour,” he begins, mainly hovering on the root note. “You’re 22.” The year when he and Hermione broke up, the year when he wrote “Space Oddity.” When you’re developing as an artist, when “your voice is new,” that’s when love can really fork you off the path, send you off into the woods.

(In 1979, a 32-year-old Bowie told the interviewer Mavis Nicholson that where he’d once fallen in love easily, he now avoided it. If he were to love, he’d do so from “afar.” “But if you then decided to not love from afar, you, as an artist, would have to give up quite a lot of your time for them,” she said. “Yes, and I can’t do that,” Bowie replied. “No, no, love can’t get quite in my way. I shelter myself from it incredibly.” “What are you sheltering yourself from?” “From losing the other eye!”)


The refrain, merely the last bars of the verse, is a spin of words: love is lost, lost is love. Echoes come from everywhere, books (Love’s Labour’s Lost), lost friends (John Lennon’s “Love“: “love is real, real is love”) and, of course, “Soul Love” again: all I have is my love of love, and love is not loving. The last phrase bites the hardest. Love is not loving. Lost is love. Love only exists when it’s absent.

The music deepens the trap. Crouched in a bleak B-flat minor (the key of “Let’s Dance”—recall how much work Nile Rodgers had to do to drag that song onstage), the only movement comes from a descending eighth-note bassline (G#-F#-Eb) and Bowie’s organ, on which he keeps the same hand shape and moves it down the keyboard, keeping to black keys, playing two-note chords.* It’s how Bowie wrote “Changes” and “Bombers” and other piano pieces during his compositional breakthrough of 1970-1971—hold one position, then move around the board like a chessman. See what happens.

And yet more echoes: Tony Visconti “Harmonizing” the tone of Zachary Alford’s snare to summon the loud ghosts of Low. Or Gerry Leonard’s lead guitar, which he wanted to sound like Peter Green on old Fleetwood Mac records. Or the refrain of “Sexy Sadie,” heard in the later verses: what have you done? oh what have you done? (“You made a fool of everyone,” a ghost sings back.)

The first verse was a warning, but the kid paid the old man no mind. So a set change. Now the kid’s in love and Bowie, having used images of refugees, exiles and wanderers throughout the album, recycles them again. (“Hostage, transference, identity,” as he described “Love Is Lost” to Rick Moody.) “Your country’s new, your friends are new.” Being in love as having to live under witness protection, of love being the half-life of an ex-spy or a defector, someone rewarded for their treachery. New house, new maid, new tongue (the way Bowie snaps “ack-scent” into two sharp little syllables), new eyes, new teeth (one presumes). But the same swindled old soul.

Bowie uses the bridge, as often on this album, as a feint, a false ray of hope. A grand move to E major, escape at last. (The engineer Mario McNulty: “One part he played on the bridge of “Love Is Lost” made me shiver. The chord progression came out of nowhere when David put it down on the Trinity; it was pure magic.“) But the perspective remains back in the safe house; it’s someone looking through the blinds to spy upon the street, or staring into the mirror. Love as an induction, as a maze with no exit; after eight bars, an A major chord sends you hurtling back down to B-flat minor again.

It’s not about a love affair but how everyone has cut down their feelings in the internet age,” Visconti offered, in one of his duller readings of Bowie’s work (but who knows, maybe an earlier lyric had Bowie complaining about Facebook). The last verses, where Leonard’s guitar thrashes into life and Alford moves to his cymbals, retain the spy/refugee imagery but cut in images from an asylum. Love is like being held in an isolation cell, interrogated endlessly, the lights always kept on, no sleep.

And then the voices. Bowie’s love of the grotesque has been a constant of his life, from the Dalek rant of “We Are Hungry Men,” to the gargoyles of “After All” and “Bewlay Brothers,” to the smacked-out mumbler on “Ashes to Ashes” to the bedlam shrieks in the 1. Outside tracks. Here his backing vocals are, as he sings, “the lunatic men,” the goon squad (they’ve come to town—beep beep!) who torture those trapped in love. Say HELLO HELLO! they chant, working the winches (“hello! hello!” a Silesian choir sings, on a record playing in a haunted chateau in 1976). TELL THEM ALL YOU KNOW! and the last rising waves of You KNOW…YOU KNOW! …YOU KNOW! …YOU KNOW!

It’s a hell of one’s happy devising. The old man tried to warn you, but look what you’ve gone and done. No use. Hard stop. Cut lights. Strike set.


James Murphy’s remix of “Love Is Lost,” which Bowie (or at least his financial adviser) considered essential enough to include on his most recent hits compilation, took the song out of its box, lengthened it to nearly 10 minutes.

To a track already freighted with the past, Murphy layered in more callbacks, scribbled more lines upon the palimpsest. Most notably Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music” (hence the subtitle), which becomes the fulcrum of the new beat, and, of course, Roy Bittan’s keyboard line from “Ashes to Ashes,” which appears like a special guest on a variety show, entering at a peak moment to rounds of applause. Murphy reversed the song’s mood-charts. The verses now seem sharper, more aggressive, where the bridge, instead of offering escape, becomes the cold heart of the track—Bowie’s vocal, freed from the major chord underpinnings, is left morosely hanging like a pennant in the air.

The video (for the single edit—the full edit got another one, which appeared to have scenes from a corrupted virtual reality sex program) was yet more attic-clearing. Grotesque puppets intended for “The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell” in 1999 are pulled out of their crates, dumped on the ground, looking like exhibits from an opening that never was, while Bowie stands in the bathroom of the “Thursday’s Child” video. He’s back in somber curator mode, a quiet contrast to the warlock face he makes by using Tony Oursler’s video projectors again (see “Where Are We Now?”)

He shot much of the video himself, reportedly turning a darkened corner of his office into a set and filming the whole thing for $12.99 (the cost of a new USB flash drive). There’s so much of the past racked up now that you can use it nearly for free.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. 3-15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day; the Murphy remix first appeared (in full) on The Next Day Extra (released 4 November 2013) and also issued as a limited edition single (both full and single edits) on 16 December.

* The piano sheet music has the verse progression as Bbm/Bbm7-Ab/Gb5/Gb6. On keyboard, Bowie’s playing Bb-Eb, Ab-Db, Gb-Bb, Eb-Ab. Thanks again to “Crayon to Crayon” for insights.

Top: Pierrot Pierrot; thin white wooden duke.

I’ll Take You There

August 24, 2015


I’ll Take You There.

The other Bowie/Gerry Leonard co-composition, “I’ll Take You There” had bigger and better hooks than their “Boss of Me” but wound up slotted as a frenetic bonus track. Set in a B minor key that it’s desperate to escape whenever possible, “I’ll Take You There” is Bowie reconciling with his Eighties, to the point where his instructions in the studio were apparently to play “Beat of Your Drum” for the band a few times.

It’s mixed to grab at you, bluntly and often: the stereo-panned drums (fattened with percussion overdubs in the mixing sessions); Leonard, David Torn and Tony Visconti punching in as many guitar tracks as the console can take (Bowie played some acoustic, not that it’s found anywhere in the mix’s heavy traffic); Leonard doing his best Earl Slick imitation for a lead riff; a pneumatic drill of an intro/outro guitar line; the usual loop-de-loops with the backing vocals.

The lyric is well-sung bunk (the refrains start “what will be my name in the USA?”— it helps to forget the English language while listening) and the dippy bridge builds to a “look up…at…staaaaars!” climax that leaves Bowie stranded like a cat in a tree—the band has to ladder-walk him down before the next refrain kicks off.

It’s heartening that Bowie’s gaudy pantomime/ desperate “rocker” side hasn’t gone entirely lost, that he hasn’t grown too respectable. A tacked-on track on the “deluxe” edition of The Next Day, “I’ll Take You There” gives an amphetamine shot to an album bowing under the weight of its accumulated histories, miseries and deaths.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. mid-September 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day: Deluxe Edition.

Top:  Xiaojun Deng, “Mombasa,” March 2011.


CMt6ZzoU8AAb3uA.jpg large

Ian McDuffie is a Chicago-based artist who’s been following this blog since…2010? A long time. In terms of blog commenters, he’s one of the village elders.

Ian’s taken my doom-filled, never-was 1977 Bowie Madison Square Garden concert from the “Bring Me the Disco King” post and has turned it into a short comic book. It’s been a tough month, so when I came home to find a copy of this in the mail, and to see my writing had inspired this—well, it really was something. So thanks, Ian, and thanks to all of you for sticking with this blog over the years (only 16ish more entries to go).

Please consider picking it up.

Rebel Rebel Promo News

Also: if you’re in the NYC area, mark your calendars: Sat. October 17, 2015.

It’s a big Bowie night at Q.E.D. in Astoria, Queens. I’ll be reading from Rebel Rebel and helping run a Bowie trivia contest, among other things. There will be music, and I’ll sign any books that you bring (and will have some copies to sell, too.) More details to come soon.

Boss of Me

August 17, 2015


Boss of Me.

After the first Next Day sessions of May 2011, Bowie had a good set of backing tracks (“Heat” and “Love Is Lost,” which will come later in this survey, also had their rhythm tracks cut then) but he was far from ready to move to the vocal/overdub phase. Having gone through ideas stockpiled from his “off duty” years, he wanted to freshen the pot with some new compositions.

So that summer he visited his guitarist/bandleader Gerry Leonard in Woodstock (Leonard had a house there; Bowie, a nearby mountain). “He said, ‘okay, I’ll come over for coffee and maybe we’ll do a little more writing,'” Leonard recalled to Rolling Stone. Borrowing a Roland TR-808 from a friend (he couldn’t say why—“we were still in this official secrets act [period], y’know?“], Leonard set up a makeshift studio in a back room, with a keyboard, the Roland and some guitars and amps. “It was ready to pick up instruments and bash around,” as he told the writer Jamie Franklin.

Bowie and Leonard scratched out two songs, both of which they’d record in the next round of studio sessions in mid-September 2011. “‘I’d just establish the tempo and we’d program up a very simple beat and play along,” Leonard said. “When we worked out all the sections, then we would do a very simple little recording of that.”

One song, a mid-tempo C minor piece, took its title (no one’s confirmed this but it has to be true) from one of Leonard’s effects processors, the Boss ME-80. You can just imagine how it went: “ha! Boss ME! You’re not the Boss of ME!” Using this cliche as a lyrical rallying point, Bowie wrote lines which he rhymed “cool…again” with “cool…again,” gave character insights like “life has your mind and soul” and built to peak inanity with “and under these wings of steel, the small town diiiiiies,” which he sang like a dying Valkyrie.

Sure, “Boss of Me” is a possibly a joke about his Somalian-born wife being a “small town girl,” and yes, he’s aware you’re thinking that, and so having some fun with your groundless suppositions about his marriage, and you know he knows this, and so on and on into infinity. He told Rick Moody that key words for the song were “displaced,” “flight” and “resettlement,” so maybe there’s a refugee narrative in there somewhere that Bowie’s privy to at least.

There are a few things of interest—Tony Levin’s Chapman stick, Zachary Alford’s cymbal work, the grumpy baritone saxophone retorts by Steve Elson, sounding like a bear waking up from hibernation, the tippling recorder lines by Visconti in the bridge, and the clever structural shift, as the C minor verse chords (Cm-Am-Bb-F) subtly become the refrain chords: it’s a passively hostile takeover. It has good stereo placement; there’s depth in the mix. But there are always a few things of interest, even in the most dire recording. Which this is—by far the worst thing on its album. There is no reason for it to exist. Bowie had a decade to create The Next Day: including something so third-rate on it seems an act of genial perversity.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. mid-September 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day.

Top: Trevor H., “Laputan Robot,” 2012.

The Next Day

August 10, 2015


The Next Day.
The Next Day (video).

Object one: Album cover art (CD: 5″ x 5.5″; LP: 12.5″ x 12.4″). Designer: Jonathan Barnbrook (photo: Masayoshi Sukita). Designed September-December 2012; issued 8 March 2013.


I thought that some fan made a joke cover,” Tony Visconti recalled his reaction upon first seeing Jonathan Barnbrook’s The Next Day image. He wasn’t alone.

Commissioned by Bowie in September 2012, Barnbrook proposed that the Next Day cover image should be the defaced cover of an earlier Bowie album. “I thought it would be quite a shocking thing to do and also play with this idea of image,” he told the journalist Rob Meyers. He experimented on nearly every Bowie LP cover, with Aladdin Sane a promising candidate. But “subverting [Aladdin] didn’t work because it’s subversive already…if you subvert Aladdin Sane, you’re adding to it, not destroying it.”

In Sukita’s “Heroes” cover photograph, by contrast, “there’s a distance.” The photo is highly stylized (Bowie replicating a hand gesture from a favorite Egon Schiele painting) and completely contained: it’s Bowie as a god in a universe of one.


Barnbrook first scrawled over the “Heroes” photograph and titles: it looked like a bitter ex-fan had wielded a magic marker (it was the scabrous recycled look of some Fall and Pavement album covers). It didn’t quite work. Then he struck upon having a white square obscure much of the photo. “It had to be something that was in direct contrast to the image underneath but that wasn’t too contrived (we know all design is contrived, that is the essence of the word ‘design’),” Barnbrook wrote in a blog entry in January 2013. “It would have been clearer to many people if we had scribbled all over the cover but that didn’t have the detachment of intent necessary to express the melancholy of the songs on the album.”

Although the album hadn’t been titled when Barnbrook started his work (the code name for the design project was “Table”), The Next Day and the defaced “Heroes” image worked in tandem. “We can be heroes—just for one day,” Bowie had sung. Now his beautiful alien 1977 visage is covered by what looks like a Post-it note. Because it’s the next day, the day after being heroes, back to her being mean and him drinking all the time.

It’s also Bowie’s first album cover not to show his “current” image.* At some point, out of boredom or necessity, the likes of Dylan and Paul McCartney and Neil Young have issued albums whose covers were a painting or a photograph of something other than the aging artist. Not Bowie: his albums are a sequence of magazine covers, his “current” look as important as his current sound. (And recall that “Heroes” had extra impact because it was the first commissioned Bowie cover photo since Young Americans.) The Next Day offers messy shorthand. Bowie isn’t quite “back”: no interviews, no tours, no new cover picture. And rather than claiming he’s offering any new sound, he’s openly scribbling and pasting over his old work.

* Exceptions include Tin Machine II and the original Buddha of Suburbia.


Object two: Music video (2:58). Dir: Floria Sigismondi. Starring: David Bowie, Gary Oldman, Marion Cotillard, Megan Neal Bodul, Catherine Jolleys, Brigitte Hagerman, Folake Olowofoyeku, Joshua Blake Shiver. Cinematography: Jeff Cronenweth. Executive producer: Colleen Haynes (Black Dog Films.) Producers: Jennifer Chavaria, Oualid Mouaness. Released 8 May 2013.

A corrupt priest goes to his favorite bar, populated some possibly depraved Catholic icons, and dances with a woman working there. The music is courtesy of a prophet who’s apparently been out in the desert for a while. The woman develops stigmata, blood sprays everywhere, the prophet’s attacked by false priests and harlots until the deus ex machina ending, complete with heaven-sent white light and the prophet being raptured away.

The reaction was to be expected. The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue attacked Bowie, though more for aesthetic incoherence than blasphemy (“it’s a sure bet [Bowie] can’t stop thinking about the Cadillac of all religions, namely Roman Catholicism. There is hope for him yet,” he concluded). A former Archbishop of Canterbury said Bowie didn’t have the guts to make a video that played with Islamic imagery. YouTube briefly deleted the video (though apparently in error, not in response to complaints), which made fans excited for a moment that Bowie was “dangerous” again. A few tabloids got to run some two-page spreads with blood and half-dressed women, which they always like doing.

It does all seem a bit tired: épater le bourgeois catholique is a very Eighties thing, and Madonna had gotten there first. What saves Floria Sigismondi’s video is its cracked sense of humor, its taste for the grotesque and Sigismondi’s eye for a shot: the way Gary Oldman’s priest, with his ducktail haircut, looks like an aged greaser; the way Marion Cotillard seems to be willing herself out of the frame though abstracted bliss.

“‘The Next Day’ is a song about a tyrant, let me leave it at that,” Visconti said in an interview, while in another he described the tyrant as a medieval Englishman [or “Catholic cardinal”] who “was very insignificant. I didn’t even know who Bowie was talking about. But if you read the lyrics, it’s quite a horrific story.”

A weary sense of obligation led me to spend a couple days trying to track down which “English tyrant” Bowie had read about, but searches for tyrants who were stuffed in hollow trees, or who cavorted with whores, or who were chased through alleys, turned up nothing in particular. Anyway Bowie’s character is far more a general idea of some grasping second-tier Shakespearean villain, a rabble-rousing priest who winds up being killed by his rabble. The video plays with this: all of its medieval Catholic imagery (Joan of Arc is at the bar, as is the eyeless St. Lucy, though the flagellant barback is more a Dan Brown nod than anything else).

It’s all a bit of theater, but the main joke is about Bowie. The sequence of Next Day videos is a storyline. “Where Are We Now” is the returned ‘Bowie’ as a mummified museum exhibit, supervised by the “real” Bowie who keeps off stage. “The Stars Are Out Tonight” is Bowie playing himself as a senior citizen. And “The Next Day” is his big, vulgar Cinescope resurrection, with Bowie howling, jumping around, cursing, performing ‘live’ again. “The normalisation,” as the blogger How Upsetting described it. “Bowie performs. He hams it up. The curtain is pulled back. The deity figure is snuffed out at the end.”


Object three: Musical composition/recording (3:27). Composer: D. Bowie. Performers: D. Bowie, vocals, guitar; David Torn: guitar; Gerry Leonard: guitar; Gail Ann Dorsey: bass; Zachary Alford: drums; Antoine Silverman, Maxim Moston, Hiroko Taguchi, Anja Wood: violins, viola, cello (string arrangement: Bowie, Tony Visconti). Producers: D. Bowie, T. Visconti. Spiritual influences: Mick Ronson, Macbeth. Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 May-ca. 15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released 8 March 2013.

The doctors tell me I shouldn’t be here now. But I don’t go to the doctors for chemotherapy or anything anymore. I just put one foot in front of the other, and the next day is the next day, and you do your best. I’ve still got so much to do.

Mick Ronson, 1993.

You can talk about the drums: Zachary Alford harping on the beat, brooking no distractions, sparing little time for fills, pacing everyone with his hi-hat. Or the guitars: the crunchy off-beat figure that comments throughout the track, and the trebly guitar that comments on its comments, and the spectral guitar that plays a rising E Dorian line to ladder up to the refrains, or all the other dubs happy to make the occasional clatter. Or the other touches, like the barely-audible rising string lines in the refrains.

You can talk about the song, happy to stay in its bright E major (some verses seem to pull off into G major, only to be dragged up or down, depending where they are, back to E), with its chassis a set of fat seventh chords (G7-C7-E7, and so on).

All well and good. But “The Next Day” is Bowie’s vocal and little else. Sequenced as the opening track, it’s Bowie offering a demonstration, in a few minutes, that he’s alive and unwell and full of piss and vinegar. His phrasings are delicious consonant runs (“ignoring the pain of their partic-u-lar dis-ease-es“), hooked on simple dumb rhymes (“yeah” with “yeah,” ending with “yeah”). His words blur into runs of aggressive sound, as if Bowie’s been penned up for a decade and needs to get this stuff out. Can you believe this? Echoing “Breaking Glass,” he kills off a verse by saying: Listen! Or how a stray line catches the ear—listen to the whores, he tells her—but before you process it, here comes another refrain battering at you.

And what a refrain. Bowie, seemingly doubled by a pantheon of himself, hollers down a world that wants him dead (it wants everyone dead, if you think about it). Who knows whether a line from one of Mick Ronson’s last interviews was in his mind as he wrote it, but “The Next Day” winds up being a curse at death from the ranks of the living. Whatever credos Bowie has offered, whatever dreams he’s encouraged, his work boils down to a line he’d sung at age 22, in “Cygnet Committee“: We want to live.

Even if you’re left half-dead, some near-corpse stuffed into a tree by fanatics, you’re not dead yet. So give ’em the finger, if you can. HERE I AM: NOT QUITE DYING. The anti-epitaph. The bitter pleasure derived from living despite God or the fates’ best intentions. The joy of the numbing business of life, all the small routines, all the breaths and footsteps, the eye-blinks and stomach rumbles. The small beauty of just keeping on, however pointless it all may seem. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, a doomed Scot once said. And the NEXT DAY and the NEXT and ANOTHER DAY, offers the man from Bromley, roaring out those last words. One foot in front of the other. Live, live, goddamn you: live.

You Feel So Lonely You Could Die

July 31, 2015


You Feel So Lonely You Could Die.

Like many Bowie songs of this century, “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” is burdened with those of the previous one. Bowie impressed a songbook into service here: verses have the flavor of Leonard Cohen’s beaten warhorse “Hallelujah,” while its title comes from “Heartbreak Hotel.” (Elvis, on this album, is like a watermark on a set of press photos.) Bowie pillages his own stores, too. “Rock and Roll Suicide” is in the guitar figure (the song’s the first Bowie waltz in decades), “The Supermen” in the vocal arrangement; the outro slightly varies the drum pattern of “Five Years,” a reference so obvious that every reviewer felt compelled to note it. (And now I do.)

It’s thick enough to make you choke. In “You Feel So Lonely…,” sequenced as the near-last word of The Next Day, Bowie calls up old spies, broken assignations, outsourced torture, shabby political killings (“the assassin’s needle” calls to mind the murder of the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, dispatched by poisoned umbrella tip). It’s a powerless reckoning, a harping on history (“Russian history,” Tony Visconti specified) that’s been crated up and shipped off, leaving him to pick at dried wounds. It’s galling how much has been gotten away with. All Bowie can hope is that the creep in his sights (a traitor, a sell-out, like an old lover who once worked for the Stasi, or maybe it just felt like it) will one day have the guts to dispatch himself (or herself). (The “official” words for this song are “Traitor,” “Urban” and “Comeuppance.”)

There’s also a sense that the song’s target doesn’t know, or care, how much hate they’ve bred over the years, how much purchase they’ve had on the singer’s imagination. No one ever saw you, Bowie begins, recounting the creep leaving notes in a park somewhere (a fan on Bowie Wonderworld speculated whether this local news story was an inspiration). But not even he saw it at the time: so much of this diatribe is a man making war against his imagination. Oblivion will own you! he cries, though he’s the one who’s most keeping the hated figure alive. He can hope for justice all he wants, whether via rifles, ropes or ricin, or that his hated object is finally stuck in a room somewhere with a mirror. But if justice comes, he’ll lose the light he’s orbiting around.

As always, look for the joke in the curse, like the pissy moan that “people don’t LIKE you” (sung after Bowie’s already called for the hangrope), or the chord sequence of D!-E!-A!-D! while he moans his final “die-ie-ie-ieee” to close out refrains. Momus once argued (and perhaps will argue again) that it’s a possible dig at Morrissey, more revenge for Morrissey stealing “Rock and Roll Suicide” for “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday” (“vile rewards for you” is very Moz). And of course, the charges of being a sneak, a vampire and a thief have been leveled against the singer as much as anyone.

What makes the track is the ironic righteousness of Bowie’s lead vocal, one of his most gorgeously sustained performances. Over crabbed chord progressions in a George Harrison vein,* the arrangement is a communal recreation of “classic” Bowie, if through a distorted mirror. DB paces things on his 12-string acoustic, Visconti has a string quartet play keyboard lines and vocal hooks, Gail Ann Dorsey and Janice Pendarvis offer blissful curses. A beautiful ode to, as Lady Stardust sang so many years ago, darkness and disgrace.

Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 May-ca. 15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day.

* See Harrison’s “Long Long Long” (also a waltz) for a similar slowly-descending IV-iii-ii progression (found in Harrison’s refrain (Bb/Am/Gm) and in Bowie’s verse (G/F#m/Em, “leaving slips of paper, somewhere..”), though Bowie moves to the vi chord (Bm, “in the park”) before going home to D, where Harrison gets home via the dominant (C)).

Top: Osamu Kaneko, “Tokyo,” 2012.


July 22, 2015



Starting life as a hard-hit snare and kick pattern played by Zachary Alford, “Plan” was toyed with throughout the Next Day sessions, with Bowie pasting in guitar dubs, shaker and cowbell (?) garnishes and organ drones that sound as though he’d heard a few Yo La Tengo records during his retirement. While Bowie would work the drum pattern into another track, “The Informer,” he also released the instrumental as “Plan” on the Next Day‘s “deluxe” release.

For what essentially was a studio sketch given a major-league promotion, “Plan” breathes well and creates an unsettled mood in its simple structure: its organ drones build in crescendo three times, at first dominating the mix to the point of distortion, then becoming the undertow of a guitar loop. The last organ sequence gets more overdubs (and seems to slightly go out of phase), with an eerie wailing quality, then it’s sharply faded as the guitar signals for another scene-change. “Plan” was aptly titled: a blueprint for a song that never would be.

Recorded: (drum track) 3 May-ca. 15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day: Deluxe Edition.

Top: Michael Tapp, “Walking Rush Hour,” NYC, October 2012.

How Does the Grass Grow?

July 16, 2015


How Does the Grass Grow?

The Next Day was conceived and recorded in secrecy and there’s little of the contemporary in it. Supposedly. “We’re not very impressed with today’s music,” Tony Visconti said, in his role as Voice of Bowie in 2013. “We weren’t listening to anything current. It all sounds like it was made by the same person….It could be the same production crew, it could be the same singer, everybody is Auto-Tuned to death and the songs are very flimsy.”

That said, one recent album casts a shadow on Next Day: PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, released on Valentine’s Day 2011, and the heavyweight of its decade so far. At times Harvey goes up country and sends back gnomic reports, other times she sings in a city square. So her piano study White Chalk is countered by Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, a millennial New York album that elegized a New York about to die. (Harvey learned she’d won the Mercury Prize for Stories on 9/11/01, while stuck in a locked-down Washington D.C., watching tanks rumble around near her hotel.)

Let England Shake was another “public” album. Written in 2007-2009 and recorded over five weeks in 2010, its spark came when Harvey learned the Iraq and Afghanistan wars had their official photographers and writers. She wondered if a war could have an official composer. To Drowned in Sound, she said: “My whole thinking around the writing of the record was very much around the idea of ‘if I was appointed the official “song correspondent”, how would I bring the stories home, how would I relay them to people.‘ “(See Wire’s “Reuters“: “sooner or later/the end will arrive…this is your correspondent, running out of tape…”).

With the Bush/Blair wars as her backdrop, Harvey used another generation’s wars for imagery, particularly World War One (one text was Maurice Shadbolt’s Voices of Gallipoli, which inspired two lyrics) and its shorthand: trenches, barbed wire, gas, broken trees, shells, fields of poppies and blood. “In a way, I wanted [my] voice to be quite unobtrusive but just to relay the story,” she said. “Almost like a witness, who is just narrating the stories and bringing them back from the place that they happened.”


A set of love songs between doomed young men and the island for which they’re dying, Let England Shake is choked in sediment, its songs patched with pieces of older songs. The chassis of the great Police break-up song “The Bed’s Too Big Without You” becomes the spine of “The Glorious Land,” where blood makes the grass grow. “The Words That Maketh Murder” winks at “George of the Jungle” (Bush of the Desert) and quotes “Summertime Blues” (Eddie Cochran’s United Nations joke seems sad here—for Cochran, the UN had meant authority, the faraway adult world, a place of prestige and power). “Istanbul, Not Constantinople” plays on xylophone during a lull in a battle. Said El Kurdi, recorded in 1920s Baghdad, wails as if he’s seen what’s coming; a British woman sings counterpoint 90 years later. More ghosts come and go—Niney the Observer‘s “Blood and Fire,” reveille trumpets, Russian folk songs, army chants, sea shanties, gabbled sounds of carnival nights and marching seasons.

Like Bowie, Harvey took her time in writing the album (though doing so in reverse,  first writing the lyrics, then coming up with songs) and she used her reliable small crew of musicians (John Parish and Mick Harvey, with whom she’d worked for decades). And possibly like Bowie, she’d first considered making the record in Berlin but wound up recording it down the street from her home. “[Berlin] was a city I was finding quite interesting at the time and wanted to work there,” she told The Quietus. “But I went over to Berlin and couldn’t find a place that felt right, and then, just coincidentally, the man who runs this church [in Dorset] as an arts centre approached me and said if I ever wanted to use it for rehearsing I could, because he liked my music and knew I lived nearby.”


There are a few Next Day songs in the England Shake mode: songs crammed with old violence, history as haunting. The title track comes to mind, as does the bizarre “How Does the Grass Grow?” whose refrain is the closest Bowie’s come to the cracked sound of “The Laughing Gnome” in decades.

Where Let England Shake was small, portable and sufficient in sound, like an early response to Cameronian austerity (Harvey mainly used her two-man pit crew, each of whom could play any instrument and sing when needed), “How Does the Grass Grow?” is like an overfilled mailbox, with its array of feedback squalls, keyboard lines doubled by vocal dubs, mutters and laughs lurking in the margins of the mix, treated cymbal crashes, organ swells, a great two-note groan of a synth bass hook. The distortion applied to Bowie’s voice in the verses even suggests the bandpass-filtered vocals in Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” (a song also lurking in Bowie’s “Valentine’s Day”).

It likely began as a writing exercise in the Lodger vein, despite Visconti claiming the track “was very different, new-style Bowie.” Bowie started with a refrain from Jerry Lordan’s “Apache” (as performed by the Shadows), keeping the top melody while slightly altering the chords (so Lordan’s F-G-C/Am becomes F#6*-Ab-Bbm). Then he simply reversed the chord sequence to get his verse progression—Bbm-Ab-F#6. The key was a typical Bowie shadow-blend, a gloomy B-flat minor tonality with dreams of escape into D-flat major, giving the song a knotted-up tension that it can’t dispel even in the two guitar solos.

Bowie rewriting “Apache” recalls Iggy Pop’s claim that he and Bowie, on Lust for Life, had taken a bunch of old songs and messed around with them enough so that no one would recognize them anymore. Not quite the case here—Bowie left enough “Apache” in the mix to have to share co-composing credit with the Lordan estate.

The lyric’s some Eastern Europe of Bowie’s imagination: another of his war-bled Warsaws. The backdrop could be Bosnia or Hungary or Ukraine (the “official” Bowie words for the song appear to be “Balkan,” “burial” and “reverse”); the line about the village girls hail from a 1967 essay by Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, describing the Russian village of Zhukovka (“television antennas stick up from the gray, tumbledown roofs and the girls wear nylon blouses and sandals from Hungary. But the grass and birch forest have a sweet smell“). It’s life in the West’s broken mirror, with sandals from a country without a seashore, or wild boys riding cheap Latvian mopeds (the Riga-1 was the first model, ca. 1965, further grounding the song in the Sixties): kids making “a life out of nothing.”

These are minor details: the song mainly harps on sex and death (there’s a trysting place where “we struggled with our guns.”). Bowie sings like a fanatic wielding a megaphone, keeping to a small range of notes, his phrasing in the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” tradition of jamming in as many syllables as he can screw into a set of bars. The singer (a coward, “a white face in prison”) wants to reverse time so that “the girls would fill with blood”: the girls are slaughtered and he wishes he could somehow fill their veins full again, but it’s also a lurid menstrual image. Only the earth survives, its mud absorbing bones and blood and entrails. Blow a hole in the ground, and soon enough grass claims it; mow down a row of trees (which die like Spartans, standing firm in a line) and their corpses feed mosses.

The refrain “how does the grass grow? blood! blood! blood!” came from Bowie reading about military training camp chants. In Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, a variation on the line is part of the chant that R. Lee Ermey leads his troops in (see also Johnny Rico’s 2007 Afghanistan memoir Blood Makes the Grass Grow Green.) “It’s about the way the soldiers are trained to kill other soldiers…part of a chant they’re taught as they plunge their bayonets into a dummy,” Visconti said.

Almost three minutes into this loud, claustrophobic track, the tempo slows and a D major bridge begins, the song shaking out of a bad dream. Bowie sings as “Bowie” for the first time, sounding mournful, if a bit removed. Though more ghosts appear—there are hints of “Shadow Man” and “Under Pressure” in the phrasing—there’s a feeling of stolen beauty, a hard-won peace (or at least that a cease-fire’s been called). Then it’s a staircase fall into another guitar solo, more “Apache” refrains and blood chants. Dancing out in A major, hanging on Gail Ann Dorsey’s circular bassline, “How Does the Grass Grow?” ends by unearthing yet another old song: “Boys Keep Swinging.” Remember how that one goes: You can wear a uniform. Other boys check out you out, at least before they take aim at you.

Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 May-ca. 15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (vocals, overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day.

*The F-sharp chord’s made an F#6 (F#-A#-C#-Eb) because Bowie’s hitting an Eb note when singing over the chord. (A detail noticed by Clifford Slapper, to whom I’m indebted for puzzling out the song and noting the “Boys Keep Swinging” reference). Augmenting chords is central to the track: Gerry Leonard extends B-flat minor chords in the refrains by playing F, G, Ab and G guitar notes that make the underlying Bbms  consecutively, Bbm, Bbm6, Bbm7 and Bbm6. See also the keyboards augmenting D major chords in the bridge (playing A-F#-G#). (Thanks again to Clifford for spotting these.)

Top: Polly Jean Harvey, MBE, 2011; band, church, Dorset; British soldiers in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, 2011 (Reuters).


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