The Duncan Jones Films

June 3, 2015

Moon (opening sequence, trailer, 2009).
Source Code (trailer, 2011).

Q. You have a son and his name is Zowie?
DB: One of his names.
Q. Is there a meaning to Zowie?
DB: No.
Q. And how old is he?
DB: Seven-and-a-half.
Q. Does he look like you?
DB: Yes.
Q. Which bit?
DB: Um, not the eyes (laughs). He’s blond and very lively. He’s not interested in music at all.
Q. He’s not going to take after you?
DB: No, he likes mathematics (laughs)
.

Bowie, interview in Japan, December 1978.

Searching for the father in the work of the son risks diminishing both. One easily makes the father a thick cloud of influence, burnishes the son into a mirror. Here we go, anyhow.

Because there are parallels, and extensions and variations on common themes, in David Bowie’s songs and in the films of Duncan Jones. Especially as the latter fill a void: Bowie’s absence neatly coincides with the releases of his son’s first two feature films. Bowie keeping out of the spotlight also let Jones establish himself as an artist. After all, there was a Bowie hard at work in public during 2008-2012; he just wasn’t the rock singer.

There’s a generational symmetry. Bowie’s father had wanted a life in the entertainment business but lost much of his savings in an ill-fated nightclub. Instead, he supported Bowie’s musical ambitions, hoping his dreams would come to fruition in his son. They did, although sadly Bowie’s break didn’t happen until after Haywood Jones’ death in 1969.

And Bowie was a pop singer who dreamed of being a director. He’d taken various film roles, he said, because he wanted in on the trade secrets—working with Nicolas Roeg and Martin Scorsese would let him see how masters shot a film. Thus armed, he’d make his own films. The David Bowie Is exhibit shows just how detailed Bowie’s plans were: the storyboards and scale model work for the Diamond Dogs and Ziggy Stardust films that would never be made. (Instead, Bowie made albums as if he was a director: having his “actors” improvise in the studio from his scenarios, then piecing together a “storyline” in the vocal booth.)

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As it turned out, Bowie was raising a director. He brought his son to various soundstages and location shoots, with Labyrinth (shot when Jones was 14) a high note, and on The Hunger, director Tony Scott let the 11-year-old Jones shoot with a “wild camera,” roaming around the set during takes (Scott reportedly wound up using some of Jones’ footage). Bowie screened countless films with him—whenever there’s a blank spot in a biography during the late Seventies or Eighties, Bowie’s likely in Switzerland watching movies with his son. Making movies, too: “One of the things we were always doing together as a hobby was filming stuff, shooting on 8mm cameras and using tiny little editing systems to cut together Smurf movies,” Jones said in 2006. “I had these Smurf and Star Wars figures and would do one-stop animation with them. I was six or seven.”

Wary of the press, as he’d been a paparazzi target since infancy, Jones even asked in early newspaper interviews that a childhood shot of him be used, so that he wouldn’t be recognized on the street. He was adamant on making his own way in film, not dropping his father’s name to ease his way into productions. (That said, being the son of a rock star does help with some financing: among the producers of Moon were Bill Zysblat, Bowie’s longtime financial adviser, and Trudie Styler, aka Mrs. Sting.)

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You know, it was work. Dad was working. And it was like any kid going to watch his dad at work, no matter what they do. We were just waiting for the concert to be over so we could go home. I could hear the noise up front but I’d spend most of my time hanging out with the roadies and playing with them.

Jones, interview, 2011.

After getting a degree in philosophy at the College of Wooster, Jones entered Vanderbilt’s PhD philosophy program in 1995. Two years in, he was “miserable” and wanted to make films instead (likely not the first philosophy doctoral student to reach this conclusion). “I had this kind of epiphany, that this was what I was supposed to be doing. This hobby of filmmaking from my childhood—this was what I should pursue,” he told Vanderbilt’s alumni magazine.

He enrolled in the London Film School, apprenticed as (again) a cameraman for Tony Scott and as an assistant director on commercials made by Walter Stern. By 2006, he was directing his own commercials—his debut being a notorious one for French Connection in which two women kung-fu fight, rip off each other’s clothes and make out. Loudly exploitative, the commercial did showcase Jones’ developing style, a postmodern “realism”–the performers aren’t models or actresses but stunt women, doing their own moves; the soundtrack juxtaposes cartoonish sound effects with a “medieval” aria (composed by Mark Sayer-Wade, with a Jones libretto).

Jones’ 2002 short Whistle (it’s on the Moon DVD) suffers from the typical student film’s stiffness in shots, edits and performances. Yet Whistle has the central Jones scenario in place: a man, isolated in a remote place, being manipulated by “off-stage” forces, with his emotional life used as leverage. An assassin, based in a Swiss chateau, dispatches various people via drones. He gets assignments from an elegant old man located off-site; his mental state is monitored by his rather robotic wife. A killing goes awry, with the target’s wife and daughter becoming collateral damage, leading the assassin to have a crisis of faith. He tries to quit and escape but winds up becoming the next target for the drones. Despite the lead character’s epiphanies, the company stays in business (Jones’ films all end this way, much as how weddings usually close a Shakespeare comedy).

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Moon: Sam, packed in a box

Jones’ studies at Vanderbilt entailed “applying artificial intelligence and morality to sentient machines. Very sci-fi. I was trying to get ahead of the game, ready for when our robot masters arrived,” he once said. He read Robert Zubrin’s 1999 Entering Space, which analyzed the potential for humans to colonize the solar system (and which has a chapter on how the moon’s Helium-3 deposits could fuel nuclear fusion projects on Earth; mining Helium-3 is the job of Sam Rockwell’s character in Moon). Jones used the book as the starting point for Moon, which he wrote in the mid-2000s and shot in 2008.

Made for $5 million on a 33-day shoot, Moon was one of the most impressive directorial debuts of the 2000s and the decade’s best “hard SF” film. He wrote the script with Nathan Parker (“I fucking hate first drafts,” Jones said in 2009. “I write extensive, usually 20- or 30-page treatments and beat lists, and then I hand it over to the writer I am working with to get my first draft done, then I alternate drafts with the writer“), with Sam Rockwell in mind as the lead, and basically sole, actor (the only scene in which Sam physically interacts with another human being is in a dream sequence).

In Moon, Jones’ situates Sam in a “realist” environment—the moonbase has a compact, visually coherent floor plan and is depicted as being a bit grimy and worn-down—with a post-modern backdrop. Moon relies in part on the viewer’s memory of earlier SF films. There are visual references to Outland, Alien, Silent Running and 2001, while Jones and Rockwell used David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers to map how Rockwell’s character could play off his identical twin clone.

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Moon: Gerty, sympathetic God

And of course, there’s “Space Oddity.” It’s as though Moon is Jones remaking his father’s breakthrough hit by moving it into a more remote key, adding some new overdubs and a different outro. Ground Control and Major Tom are, respectively, played by Gerty (a movable computer voiced by Kevin Spacey) and Sam, the astronaut who cracks up and “leaves the capsule” by escaping the moon base (though tellingly Sam returns home; he doesn’t drift off into space).

Where “Space Oddity” finds the rational can-do American mind collapsing in the face of the void, blanking out, with the body drifting off, Moon is infused with meaning upon meaning: it’s man symbolizing empty space, in the way that the harvester robots have transformed the lifeless moon surface into an industrial complex.

Take the boatload of Christian symbolism. Sam has named the moonbase’s four robot harvesters after the Gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (a later shot discloses that Luke, the harvester on the blink for the whole film, has been renamed “Judas” on a post-it note). Sam’s wife is Tess, from Theresa, a name derived from the Greek therizo, “to harvest,” while his daughter is called Eve (a bit too on the nose). Sam (Samuel) himself has a biblical name (literally “name of God”), one of an Old Testament prophet; Sam ends Moon by returning to earth to bring the Good (?) News.

Even the film’s plot is an annunciation (Sam realizes something’s wrong with his reality, discovers his existence is false, the truth revealed to him by a “god,” i.e., Gerty) followed by death and multiple resurrections (Sam is grievously wounded, prompting Gerty to awaken a “Sam 2” clone to replace him; Sam 2 temporarily repairs the dying Sam 1; the two eventually activate a “Sam 3”). Jones shoots each Sam clone waking up several times, with Sams 2 and 3 first “awakening” in a sparse white room, the base’s vestibule between life and death.

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Moon: “I thought you died alone/ a long long time ago”

Sam 1: I’m the original Sam!
Sam 2: I’m in the same boat, asshole.

Christianity is just one way of viewing the film; its most obvious (too obvious?) level of interpretation. Jones once said he wanted the sequence of Sam clones to play with “the idea of a confrontation between yourself and a different version of yourself. I just liked the notion of maybe the me from now being able to talk to me from a younger period; of how different I am now to how I was.”

Again, it’s Jones playing deep into Bowie territory: the idea of piecing together a self from a mess of other selves (some yours, some others); repeated themes of duality and schizophrenia; alternating moods of radical reinvention and eternal continuity (like breaking apart your established sound to make a “Speed of Life,” then including the “Laughing Gnome” riff in it).

Moon sounds these themes in subtle ways, aided by Rockwell’s precise performance (you never lose track of which Sam he’s playing in a shot). There’s the prospect that the idea of a unique individual consciousness is a cruel joke (each “morning” a clone’s alarm playsThe One and Only” by Chesney Hawkes. (“And yet you try to make me forget / Who I really am / Don’t tell me I know best / I’m not the same as all the rest.”). Or that much of what makes you “you” is possibly false information programmed by others (consider how many of your childhood memories are actually yours, and how many are stories your parents have told you, perhaps validated by a few photographs).

So Sam, who thinks he’s serving a three-year stint on the moonbase and will soon return home to his wife and young daughter, instead finds he’s one in a long series of clones, and that his memories are those of the original Sam, who may have never left Earth. “His” wife is actually long dead; his daughter is a teenager (who has grown up knowing the “real” Sam, so she’s not even missing her father). His life is that of a plastic toy kept in a box.

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Moon: death and resurrection

There’s an optimistic reading to the film’s close. Gerty, rather than going the way of the usual murderous super-computer, instead helps lead Sam to enlightenment. And the Sam clones enact the range of human experience: the dying Sam 1 breaks down into a petulant adolescent whereas the “young” Sam 2 quickly matures, helping his “father” to accept his end and die with honor. The clones even act as the parents of “Sam 3,” the clone activated to run the moonbase: Sam 1 chooses to die for his child while Sam 2 goes to earth to fight for him.

I am fascinated by the idea that the person you think that you are is very different from what other people see you as,” Jones said. Moon ends with a man falling to earth. Not, as in Bowie and Nicolas Roeg’s film, an extraterrestrial looking to save his home by coming to ours but a manufactured human coming “home” to a planet he’s never seen but that he remembers in his dreams.

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Jones’ follow-up was 2011’s Source Code, based on a Ben Ripley script developed years before Moon. It’s a less personal film, which Jones said he took in part to prove he could helm a mainstream picture, and he had some frustration with the shift in scale. Where Moon was the work mostly of him, his producer and Rockwell, Source Code had multiple layers of producers and some mid-level studio money behind it (a $32 million budget). Jones also had to contend with a script in which a tenuous love story attempted to flower in the midst of a 24-esque “beat the clock” terrorist scenario.

That said, there are a number of similarities between the films (its star, Jake Gyllenhaal, had wanted Jones to direct after seeing the first few minutes of Moon). Again, a man kept in isolation is being lied to by his employer in order to keep him concentrated on his work. Gyllenhaal is Colter Stevens, a paraplegic, barely-alive Afghanistan war veteran whose brain is linked to “source code,” which allows a government lab to “insert” his mind into the last eight minutes of another man’s memories. This man, a teacher named Sean, was killed by a terrorist bomb; Stevens is repeatedly resurrected in the man’s body so that he can find who set the bomb, and thus let the government prevent a further atrocity. (As a tip of the hat to Moon, before the storyline is revealed, Sean’s friend/love interest Michelle Monaghan’s cel phone rings to Hawkes’ “One and Only”).

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Jones’ hand is most evident in shot composition and set details. Take the color scheme: blue unites Monaghan, Stevens and Stevens’ sympathetic army supervisor (the Gerty of the film), played by Vera Farmiga (her boss, Jeffrey Wright’s character, an amoral careerist scientist, wears brown—he’s out of the circle). There’s a hierarchy within the blue unity: Stevens wears a darker blue than Sean, the man he’s inhabiting, while Farmiga and the train conductors, the authority figure, wear shades of black-blue.

Like the moonbase, the main set of Source Code is a bottle world: the fishbowl of a two-tiered commuter train car (a life-sized set that Jones had constructed, built on a gimbal, rather than use an existing train car). The other two main environments are equally enclosed: the technology-dominated government base, code name “beleaguered castle” (it has more glowing screens than humans) where Farmiga and Wright monitor the action from what might as well be outer space; and Stevens’ mental projection of his helicopter cockpit which is shot at odd angles and extreme closeups, with handheld camera and short cuts, and the set is doused in blues, altering in shape and props upon each return visit.

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Again, the film plays free agency against corporate repetition. Without Stevens’ knowledge, the doomed train passengers would simply repeat the same lines and actions, dying in exactly the same way; the train is a limbo between existences. But Stevens’ consecutive appearances soon alter the narrative, from helping a woman to avoid spilling her coffee to having an obnoxious comedian entertain a car full of passengers.

It’s reality as video game—Stevens plays out the train bomb scenario nine times, usually losing, but finally “solving” the game in his last go-through. Jones edits each scenario differently, changing dialogue (the only constant is Monaghan’s opening line, “I took your advice”), so that the film essentially repeats nine times, sometimes as black comedy, sometimes as distorted, sped-up fragments, sometimes as a downbeat thriller (see the eighth repetition, in which the villain kills the heroes and gets away with his plans).


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Source Code: blue, blue, electric blue

Source Code did well, making $135 million, and Jones hoped to use it to springboard into more ambitious films. “Until all this is done and I go back to Los Angeles and start taking meetings, I don’t know how seriously I’ll be in a position to get the films made that I’d like to make,” as he told Den of Geek.

He’d envisioned Moon as being one part in a possible trilogy, and he’s long wanted to make a film called Mute (he originally talked to Rockwell about starring in it before Moon even came about). His inspiration for the latter was a SF fan’s: what’s happening elsewhere in the world of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner?

What will Berlin be like in that same future? It got me very excited,” he said. “Berlin’s always a city I’ve found fascinating. I lived there for a little bit when I was a kid, and I went back again more recently, after the reunification of Germany, and it’s a city that’s changing so fast. Just because of the reunification, and the fact that the Soviets no longer exist, as such, so all the old socialist buildings are being repurposed—night clubs, residences, gyms…So, I was thinking, if Berlin has changed that fast in the last fifteen years, what will it be like thirty or forty years from now?

Jones is now a talked-up director, getting on the shortlist for a Superman film and eventually landing Warcraft, adapting the World of Warcraft video game franchise. He’s spent over three years on the project, mostly in post-production. If the film’s a hit (as it likely will be) will this finally give him the pull to make Mute or his other personal projects? Here’s hoping.

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Mute: Berlin street, Jones’ storyboard, ca. 2009

Jones goes a bit against the current grain by not indulging in grimdark SF dystopias. The worlds of Moon and Source Code have positive qualities. The moon colony supplies cheap, clean energy to Earth, letting the human race advance beyond its fossil fuel stage and reduce the pace of climate change. And the use of source code allows someone to prevent terrorist atrocities without resorting to murderous violence or repressive government measures, like a happy dream from the Bush years.

What interests him is what’s sacrificed to make even these compromised utopias: a single human soul, whether the string of short-lived clones in the moon base or the maimed soldier locked in a box in Source Code. Ursula LeGuin’s Omelas lies at the heart of Jones’ work to date—a brighter future built on the enslavement and degradation of a single person, someone who has to be lied to in order to keep working. The company always stays in business.

Of course, this being Bowiesongs, we should close back with the father. Who, after all, was a proud father, and one who’d want to pay homage to the son who had surpassed him, at least in one field.

What’s the very first thing the viewer sees in Moon, after the production tags?

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Moon premiered 23 January 2009 at the Sundance Film Festival and it screened in the UK and US that summer, Europe and Asia that fall. Source Code premiered on 11 March 2011 at the South By Southwest Film Festival. Warcraft is due to be released in June 2016. Let’s hope Mute will follow.

Top: Duncan Jones and his dad, Sundance, January 2009; Jones and Jones and Roeg, 1975; Jones and Jones at press conference, 1974.


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May 26, 2015

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The Johansson-Waits Songs

May 20, 2015

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Fannin Street (Tom Waits).
Fannin Street (Scarlett Johansson with David Bowie).
Falling Down (Tom Waits).
Falling Down (SJ with DB).

Turn to the dramatic field. You have so much sympathy and such a melodious voice. Make them valuable to others. It will make your powers endure…You have this quality in your eyes and mouth and in your nature. You can lose it, you know. If you turn away from it and live to satisfy yourself alone, it will go fast enough.

Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie.

It’s 1994, and a nine-year-old girl is auditioning for a role in the Robin Williams picture Jumanji. The mannerisms of the famous actress, here glimpsed in the child that she had little interest in being for long: the unimpressed stare, the gravely voice, the calm self-possession.

Scarlett Ingrid Johansson is a New Yorker, born and bred, from a ‘professional creative’ home (mother a producer, father an architect, sister an actress). She has been acting essentially her whole life. She’s made over 40 films and is barely 30 years old.

The fact is most of the things that people know about me are made up. My own life is backstage. So what you “know” about me is only what I allowed you to know about me. So it’s like a ventriloquist act. And it’s also a way of safely keeping your personal life out of your business. Which is healthy and essential.

Tom Waits said this (and David Bowie easily could have). But its sentiment applies to Johansson as well. While her life’s been mild sport for the tabloids (some high-profile affairs, the obligatory short-lived marriage to a handsome nonentity), she stands outside of it, in her way. She’s not on Twitter garrulously cultivating a fanbase; she’s on terms solely with the camera lens. She does the usual round of promotions for each film and offers her curated self, while hinting that something else is going on that you, desperate viewer, have no claim on. That while extolling whatever picture she’s working on, she’s humming a Tom Waits song in her head.

She’d wanted to act in musicals but never got the Annie or Cosette-type roles she craved, in part due to having a deep voice even as a child. (Her singing “would have been slightly jarring for the audience,” she recalled. “But after the 500th performance [of Annie], maybe it would have been interesting to break out a little, with this pigtailed blonde-haired girl with this crazy voice.“) So “by the time I turned 13, I kind of buried that part of myself,” she said.

Instead she spent her life on soundstages and location shoots, growing up on movie and TV screens, moving from the wry, already-old kid (Manny and Lo), (“she shrugged off childhood as if it had been a bad shirt,” as David Thomson wrote) to object of mysterious desire for sad middle-aged men (Lost in Translation, Girl With a Pearl Earring) to high summer glamour goddess (the Woody Allen movies). Today she’s mainly an action film star, playing both hero and killer. I expect she’ll make films for another half-century.

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In 2006, Johansson cut a version of Gershwin’s “Summertime” for Unexpected Dreams, a tribute album distributed by Rhino, who liked the track and asked her to record an album. It was a canny move by Rhino—Johansson had some “indie” cred, she’d obviously be great for promotions and there’d always been a revolving door between acting and pop singing (in the Fifties, it would’ve been expected that a young actress would release albums between films).

Further, she was growing more confident as a singer, recording duets with Pete Yorn (the album, The Break Up, was released in 2009) and singing with the Jesus and Mary Chain at Coachella. She also had come to embrace the absurdity and unfairness of stardom. She was a famous person who’d landed a record contract mainly because she was famous, when so many hundreds of more talented singers struggled in obscurity, and she knew that she’d be belittled by the likes of Perez Hilton for whatever record she made. So if she was going to make a self-indulgent album, then let it be indulgent.

At first, I thought I would just do an album of standards. But then I couldn’t figure out which standards to do. I did know, though, that I wanted to record this Tom Waits song called “I Never Talk to Strangers,” which is a duet that he does with Bette Midler. But I think it was kind of confusing for some people, because they couldn’t understand how a Tom Waits song could fit in with a Cole Porter song and stuff, and it turned into, ‘Why don’t we just incorporate more Tom Waits songs into this?’ So I just decided to do an entire album of Tom Waits songs.”

She’d first heard Waits when she was 11 or 12, she told Interview. “It’s funny how the songs mean something different to me now than they did when I first heard them. I remember listening to the songs when I was a kid and laughing. Some of them are almost silly in a way, like “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up.” When you’re 12, that means something completely different to you than when you actually recognize that there’s a grown man singing that song. Just listening to certain songs, like “I’ll Shoot the Moon“—they’re very opusy and attractive for a kid, in the same way that Alice in Wonderland would be or something.”

She started by doing some sessions with jazz musicians, recording a few Waits compositions, but the mood was wrong. “It all sounded awful,” she said. “I realized that trying to recreate Tom Waits’ sound with my voice…it just sounded really camp. I knew what kind of sound I wanted in my head, but I realized that I needed someone to help me get there.”

So she sought out Dave Sitek from TV On the Radio (of whom she was a fan). They clicked, and had similar ideas for the record. Sitek saw the chance to cut a Lee Hazelwood/Nancy Sinatra-esque record (the dream of seemingly every indie dude in the 2000s—Pete Yorn envisioned The Break Up as his and Johansson’s Serge Gainsbourg/Brigitte Bardot album), as a way “to make a cinematic record with an actress and have zero concern with being ambitious in the music business way,” he told Tiny Mix Tapes in 2008. “We made it for each other, just to try it out and see what happens…She didn’t care if it was ever even mentioned in Pitchfork (it would be), and that was a really wild freedom to have. It seems really ballsy to me, especially since Tom Waits is a sacred cow.”

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Cut during five weeks in late spring 2007 at Dockside Studios in Maurice, Louisiana, the album (Anywhere I Lay My Head) featured mainly latter-day Waits compositions. Covering the jazzy, more melodic Waits songs seemed almost too easy a task (there’d be no Johansson takes on “Downtown Train” or “Muriel”). Instead, Sitek and Johansson drew from the likes of Bone Machine, Alice (including the instrumental “Fawn,” which wonderfully led off the album sequence) and Real Gone.

As if possessed by the spirit of Daniel Lanois on Dylan’s Oh Mercy, Sitek went for what he called a “cough medicine tinker-bell vibe,” which meant Johansson’s voice would be one strain in a genteel clatter: Tibetan bowls, music boxes, pump organs, bass harmonicas, kalimbas, cicada buzzes.

Asked by Amanda Petrusich about the recording in 2006, Waits said “I read about it in the paper…more power to her…I don’t know if I’m excited to hear it, but I’m curious. People make songs so that somebody else will hear them and want to do them. I guess it’s an indication that the songs aren’t so ultra-personal that they can’t possibly be interpreted by anyone else. I’ve seen her in movies. I don’t know what she’s going to do with the tunes.”

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When I first wanted to do the Bette Midler-Tom Waits duet, I was thinking about who would I duet with, who would make it interesting. I thought, Maybe, you know, David Bowie,” Johansson told Interview. “I thought it would be great if he could sing the Waits part—or if he could sing the Bette Midler part and I could sing the Waits part, or something like that. I mean, a duet with David Bowie: that was, like, my 13-year-old fantasy.

Bowie and Johansson acted in the same film, Christopher Nolan’s The Prestige (though they had no scenes together). Afterward they met at a dinner in New York, where Bowie said he’d heard she was working with Sitek. “So I jokingly said, “You know, let me know if you want to come! Anytime—I’ll drive you!” And then one day when I was in Spain shooting [Vicky Cristina Barcelona], I got this call from Dave, and he was like, “You’ll never guess who I have in the studio right now.

Bowie showed up at Avatar Studios during the album mixing, having obtained the sheet music and having worked out his vocal arrangements. Sitek had suggested that he sing on “Falling Down” and “Fannin Street,” which Bowie approved of, and “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up,” on which he believed he couldn’t do anything, and was likely right.

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“Fannin Street,” which Waits wrote for John Hammond and recorded himself in 2006, drew on Leadbelly’s song of the same title. Waits shifted his song west to Texas, singing of Houston’s Fannin Street, where Leadbelly had sung of Shreveport, Louisiana’s red-light district, which he’d been drawn to as a boy in the 1900s. Waits’ song was a dissolute’s lament, a man recalling a warning he knew he’d never heed, with a refrain melody that seemed fished from a riverbed. “Fannin Street” for Leadbelly was an escape, a place where the night never ended. His mama tells him to stay away, he tells her to let him go: life’s waiting there for him. For Waits’ singer, Fannin Street is a temptation and a damnation. There’s no joy here, even a corrupt one; there’s just a closed, gilded door.

Johansson sang it simply, keeping to her comfortable low register, her voice slipping into the murk on her lowest notes. She cedes the lamenting to Bowie, whose four-part harmonies build into, in the closing refrain, a gorgeous piece of hysteria. He’s mourning her fall; she accepts it. Waits made the line “give a man gin, give a man cards/give him an inch he takes a yard” a pitying self-condemnation. Johansson makes of it a small indictment. It’s the voice of someone at the other end of the taking.

Given its line “come from St. Petersburg/Scarlett and me,” covering “Falling Down” was perhaps inevitable (‘Johansson’ and ‘Scarlett’ as two separate personae mediated by Tom Waits). Its video is the Johansson mystique “unpacked”: we see her in her dressing room, assembling herself into a movie star; she strides through her paces, impeccably beautiful (it’s the reverse of Lost In Translation—now she’s the star doing her rounds) but unknowable, refusing to drop the mask for a second, only applying further masks, not looking at the camera unless she’s being paid.

She sang “Falling Down” by pushing her voice to its limits, using for many phrases a sharp Noo Yawk accent that recalled Debbie Harry on “Just Go Away.” (“that hotel was a GAWN-UH!“) It was a feinting maneuver. Waits’ vocal (recorded in a studio session with some Little Feat members and included on the live LP Big Time) is one of his most astonishing works, exploiting the full range of his smashed jukebox of a voice—a man, a hotel, a world is in freefall, shattering itself apart, and he tries to hold it together in his breaths. Johansson moves through the wreckage, observing but not responding, watching through glass like Iggy Pop’s passenger. Bowie begins by muttering in the margins (“I’ve-come-five-hundred-miles” he whispers) and then rises to shadow her in the refrains. By the last verse he’s nearly become her equal in the mix, his voice giving a sense of loss that she refuses to admit.

Anywhere I Lay My Head came out in 2008 to modest criticisms and modest sales, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine’s assessment of it still rings true: “It doesn’t quite work, but it can’t quite be dismissed, either: unlike so many actor-turned-singer records, there’s not a hint of vanity to this project and it’s hard not to marvel at its ambition even as it fails.” But while Sitek’s production can already seem dated, Johansson, so earnestly blank throughout, remains alluring, her collective performance suggesting the last line of Dreiser’s Sister Carrie: In your rocking-chair, by your window, shall you dream such happiness as you may never feel.

As for Bowie, he cut his vocals, listened to playback, said goodbye to Sitek, went home. He wouldn’t go back in a recording studio again for over three years.

Recorded: (Johansson, musicians) ca. May 2007 at Dockside Studios, Maurice, Louisiana; (Bowie vocals) ca. late summer 2007, Avatar Studios, NYC. Released on 16 May 2008 on Anywhere I Lay My Head (UK #64, US #126).


Pug Nosed Face

May 14, 2015

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Pug Nosed Face (aka Little Fat Man).
Pug Nosed Face (live, 2007).

One night in 1999, a British pianist named Clifford Slapper was walking to a gig in London. To do so, he had to go past the Astoria, where David Bowie was playing the same night. Slapper had wanted to go to the show but had his prior obligation. So instead he stopped for a moment, heard Bowie’s voice ringing out from the venue, and walked on. Later that night he returned, talked with someone who he later realized was likely Bowie’s guitarist Mark Plati, and regretted missing the gig.

But seven years later, he played piano with Bowie on a television show, so sometimes things work out.

“During production of the second season of Extras, I was contacted by the producer, Charlie Hanson, and was told that David Bowie would be flying over from New York to film an episode, and would be singing and playing the piano, but that he’d specified that he wanted an ‘English rock pianist’ to be brought in to actually play the piano track,” Slapper told me.

Extras was Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s follow-up to The Office. Where The Office was a sad little world, a place where failure and humiliation came as often as the rains fell on Slough, Extras was on a broader canvas. It diagnosed a wider malaise: millennial Britain’s obsession with fame (or at least notoriety), money, status.

For Gervais, Extras was a sign of his upgraded celebrity rating. The Office had a strong cult following in the US and had spawned an American version, and the BBC had partnered with HBO for Gervais and Merchant’s new series, which meant there was a substantial production budget (which likely enabled Bowie’s scene to have the entire Extras crew relocate to an actual club in Hertfordshire (see below) instead of just filming the scene on a soundstage in London, which helped Bowie avoid the paparazzi). And Gervais had acquired some famous fans, letting him stud Extras with celebrity cameos: Ben Stiller, Patrick Stewart, Kate Winslet, Robert DeNiro and, of course, David Bowie.

It’s not surprising that Bowie agreed to appear on Extras, whose jaundiced sensibility and humor (its plots centered on the accumulated humiliations and grievances of Gervais’ character, striving actor Andy Millman) reminded him of what he enjoyed most about Britain. He’d loved The Rutles, screening All You Need Is Cash and playing the soundtrack for his band during his 1978 tour; he’d name-dropped Dudley Moore and Peter Cook’s Behind the Fridge in “Young Americans” and had spent the Low and “Heroes” sessions doing “Pete and Dud” impressions with Eno. And he’d done a few comic turns himself, from his flamboyant director “Sir Roland Moorecock” on HBO’s Dream On to his “Requiem for a Laughing Gnome” on Comic Relief.

For Extras, Gervais and Merchant wrote Bowie as a figure of refined fame, an avatar of impeccable cool. The set-up had the slightly-famous Millman (he has a role in a sitcom that requires him to say a catchphrase, which he hates) visiting a high-end bar and looking for a sympathetic ear from Bowie, who, after a few nods, instead turns to a conveniently-located grand piano and performs what, until 2013, was his last public composition: “Little fat man, who sold his soul…chubby little loser…the clown that no one laughs at…he blows his stupid brains out…see his pug nosed face!”

The scenario’s brilliance lies in that it’s a fan’s worst nightmare: failing Bowie’s hip test and then being stilettoed in public. Certainly, about every account of Bowie over the past 40 years has been of a professional and charming man, whether meeting fans or greeting fellow artists or celebrities (indeed, Bowie’s often been the put-upon one, such as in his ill-fated dinner with Frank Zappa in 1978). But the Bowie mystique is such that you still fear, somehow, you’ll have failed Bowie by coming off as too eager, too boorish, too familiar, and then you’ll pay for it.

“Pug Nosed Face” (still, as of this writing, Bowie’s last television appearance) also encapsulates a common perception of Bowie the artist: someone who regards life as a collection of images to exploit, a man who can take a stray line and wind a song around it and one who can move, in a few bars, from dramatic, ominous phrases to a knees-up singalong refrain. For a time, I thought “Pug Nosed Face” would be the blog’s last entry, and it seemed fitting: Bowie going out with a bout of wickedly funny, slightly surreal cruelty.

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The lyrics were already written as part of Gervais and Merchant’s script.

“I’ve been into Bowie since I was about sixteen,” Gervais told Rolling Stone in 2007. “I sent the lyrics and called him up and asked him if he got them, and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah …'” (switching to a slightly spaced-out, ruminative voice.) And I said to him, ‘We’re thinking of the music to be sort of retro, like “Life on Mars”—and Bowie said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll just knock off a “Life on Mars” for you, shall I?'”

Having received the lyric in New York, Bowie “was asked to write chords to the song and bring them over,” Slapper says. “I was also sent a script and was asked to do the same, in case he declined to do so. One of the first things that happened after we met is that he asked to see what chords I had come up with, and compared them with his. It turned out that they were almost exactly the same, which he found spooky.”

The song’s progression (which Slapper still has and recalls was in A major) was “classic” Bowie in its modulations. Hence the nearly-identical works of Bowie and Slapper, who naturally was writing in a Bowie vein, much as how Gervais and Merchant were writing a “Bowie” lyric.

“It was perfect!” Gervais recalled of the song to Rolling Stone. “All the little bits to it. It was amazing, because what he did was, he gave us Bowie!”

CS & DB AT PIANO square & small

Already in London for his performance with David Gilmour in late May 2006, Bowie filmed his Extras scene in the first week of June.

“We had one day of rehearsal and one day of filming for the scene, which was tricky as it was filmed ‘live’ (without overdubs) with a second piano off-camera for me to play, and it was important for us to synchronize so that his arm movements coincided perfectly with my playing,” Slapper says. “It soon became clear that it would be easier for him to mime to my playing if his fingers were allowed to sometimes make contact with the keys on the piano he sat at. But obviously since it was being filmed as a live performance with sound, we could not have any sound from that piano being heard. I suggested that we simply disengage the action of that piano, and showed the crew how to do this.”

“The rehearsal and filming all took place in a real nightclub [Elberts on Pegs Lane*] not far from London, which was still in use, though obviously closed down for those few days. The club was in Hertford but the base for filming was established at a location a couple of miles away at the small town of Ware in Hertfordshire, which gave rise to some amusement, as I would ask the producer where we would be, and he would say “Ware”, and I would say, ‘yes, where?'”

The song was registered as a three-way split among Bowie, Gervais and Merchant, with “Pug Nosed Face” chosen as its official title (though I imagine many fans call it “Little Fat Man”—Gervais sometimes still refers to it as such in interviews).

I asked Clifford if it felt odd to know that he’d played on possibly the “last” Bowie recording until The Next Day appeared. But he corrected me in noting “this was in 2006, only about three years after Reality, so there was not that sense of a long absence or hiatus from recording on his part, as there might have been if it had been 2011. Nevertheless, I was excited and honored to play on this. Bowie was charming, intelligent, modest, efficient, creative, perceptive. He was a delight to work with: polite, funny, witty and sharp. In rehearsal, we worked out the arrangement in a way which he guided and directed whilst at the same time allowing me to express myself in the way I played it.”

“Pug Nosed Face” would be the last public image of Bowie for over six years: healthy, well-dressed, sitting in a nightclub and leading a pack of yuppies through an eviscerating song. The story could have ended here; indeed, for a time, it seemed that it really had. Not bad, as endings go.

Recorded 5-7 June 2006, Elberts, Hertford, Hertfordshire. First broadcast on BBC2 on 21 September 2006. Bowie’s brief rendition of “Pug Nosed Face” in his introduction of Gervais at the Theater at Madison Square Garden (for the Bowie-curated High Line Festival) on 19 May 2007 remains, to date, his last appearance on stage.

* Elberts relocated in 2009; the original bar is now apparently an art gallery.

Thanks again to Clifford Slapper, who’s also just published a biography of Mike Garson. This came about in part because of Extras, as when Slapper met Garson for the first time in LA in the late 2000s, “a strange and funny coincidence happened. Without knowing about my participation in Extras, Garson started to tell me a story of how he had, a couple of years earlier, enjoyed an English comedy on cable TV, and had seen David Bowie in it, apparently playing piano. Garson spoke to Bowie around that time and had joked with him about it, “I see you’re playing the piano pretty well yourself, now. I guess you won’t be needing me any more!” Garson told me that Bowie had replied, “No, Mike, that wasn’t me! That was some English guy playing the piano.” It was a lovely twist to be able to interrupt Mike’s musings and to say, “Well, I was that guy!” We bonded over this coincidence. Mike and I found that we had a great deal of shared experiences as pianists and as working musicians generally. After hours of conversation, on our first meeting, I pointed out what a fascinating life he’d had and how inspiring his experiences and outlook on life could be. I asked whether there were any biographies of him and he replied that there had not been any yet, but that he thought I would be the perfect person to write it. I started work on it that day.”

You can buy Clifford’s biography, Bowie’s Piano Man: The Life of Mike Garson (Fantom Books) here (UK) and here (USA and elsewhere). Any Bowie fan should enjoy it. I regret that I wasn’t able to read it before I published my book, as it sheds a great deal of light on Garson and his playing.

Top: Bowie on set, Extras; Bowie and Gervais, NYC, 2007; Clifford Slapper and David Bowie (photo: Ray Burmiston).


The Pink Floyd Set

April 27, 2015

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Arnold Layne (Bowie and David Gilmour, live, 2006).
Comfortably Numb (Bowie and David Gilmour, live, 2006).

David Gilmour was touring in the spring of 2006 as a solo artist, as Pink Floyd, the band whose name and leadership he’d assumed since the mid-Eighties, was finally in the grave. “I’m at liberty to play with Rick [Wright] and Nick [Mason] any time,” he said in 2001. “But the weight of the whole Pink Floyd thing is something that I don’t feel like lifting these days…I just think I’ve grown out of it. Finally.”

He and Roger Waters had sniped at each other for decades over who “owned” Pink Floyd. Waters, the band’s neurotic auteur, had left in acrimony in 1983 and Waters partisans considered the Gilmour-led, still-platinum-selling Pink Floyd to be a shell of its former self. Gilmour and Waters buried the hatchet (at least for a night) in 2005, when Pink Floyd reunited for Live 8, but Gilmour used the occasion as a public burial for the band. There were offers of £150 million for a series of reunion gigs, but Gilmour was done: no more tours, no more Floyd albums.

In 2006 Gilmour put out his first solo record in two decades, On an Island, and it hit #1 in the UK (given the collapse in record sales by 2006, if you had any sort of fanbase, you had a good shot to top the chart on your album’s release week).* He played the Royal Albert Hall for three nights at the end of May, with a band and set list full of guests—David Crosby and Graham Nash, Robert Wyatt, Phil Manzanera. And at the first show, with no fanfare or pre-show hype, David Bowie walked out on stage to help sing the encores.

Gilmour said he chose his collaborators that night from “people I grew up loving…David Bowie might not have worked with Pink Floyd,” he said in 2007. “But it fits with me.” Afterward on BowieNet, “sailor” wrote that “I had a ball tonight singing with David Gilmour and the band. He invited me up to do Arnold Layne and Uncomfortably Numb.” (Bowie felt obligated to note, in a follow-up post, that the latter title was a joke.)

Bowie’s appearance at the Royal Albert Hall, following his performances with Arcade Fire the previous autumn, hinted that he was testing the waters for a return to public life. Soon enough would come the announcements: a new album, even a new tour, perhaps? Any day now, certainly.

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We’re doing this for everyone who’s not here. Particularly, of course, for Syd.

Roger Waters, Live 8, 2005, before “Wish You Were Here.”

The encore songs were both Pink Floyd pieces: two points far apart on the band’s spectrum, though symbolically linked. Both addressed the man who wasn’t there; a man who, in two months, would finally die, though he’d left the world far earlier.

“Comfortably Numb” is a moment of grace on Waters’ misanthropic The Wall, perhaps in part because Gilmour wrote most of the music. Its lyric was pure Waters: isolation as defense mechanism, using dope-induced quietude to find a lost, better self, exalted self-pity. The B minor verses found Waters in a favorite role as a manipulative bureaucrat—here, a doctor trying to revive the catatonic “Pink” and get him functioning enough to perform (inspiration came from Waters getting a tranquilizer injection before a show during the Animals tour). The Gilmour-sung D major refrain was the release, the needle hitting the vein, the clouds lifting for a moment.

Behind it all was Syd Barrett. Was there ever more heartbroken a band than Pink Floyd? Spending decades mourning a man who’d left them, making album after album in his image. “Brain Damage,” “Wish You Were Here,” “Comfortably Numb” were all Waters trying to contact his lost boyhood friend, to try to see the world as he imagined Barrett did. Barrett’s continued presence on the margins was a rebuke: the fact that he kept on living and enduring (“[Syd] found his own mind so absorbing that he didn’t want to be distracted,” his sister Rosemary Barrett said after his death), that he didn’t need Pink Floyd a tenth as much as they apparently needed him. “When people called [Syd] a recluse they were really only projecting their own disappointment. He knew what they wanted but he wasn’t willing to give it to them,” as Rosemary Barrett said.

Bowie struggled to find his footing in “Comfortably Numb,” in part because he was miscast for the verses. Given the near-conversational melody that Waters wrote to fit his cracked recorder of a voice (it started as something of a Dylan parody, as a studio demo shows), Bowie elevated his phrasings and wound up worrying his way through the song; he’s a doctor who knows he’s a quack.

But before that he’d sung “Arnold Layne,” Pink Floyd’s first single, a Barrett masterpiece. Though it was recorded after Bowie had cut his first album, “Arnold Layne” distilled the latter—Bowie’s little bombardier, cross-dressing barkeep and Uncle Arthur are the children of Barrett’s knicker-thief and jailbird Arnold. Bowie’s songs share Barrett’s empathy for his oddball, his knowledge that there’s little separating him from the official freaks of the world—why can’t you see? Barrett had sung to a silent England. Like “Waiting for the Man,” “Arnold Layne” could seem like a song that Bowie wished he’d written, to the point where he named his “fake” rock band the Arnold Corns in homage to it. Finally singing “Arnold Layne” here, at the apparent end of his stage career, came off as an intro melody reappearing in a closing movement.

Bowie savored the song’s Mockney rhymes (“now ‘ees CORT/a nahsty SORT,” “LAYNE..had a STRAYNGE ‘obby” (see his “The Supermen”: “straynge gaymes thay would play”) and he jibed the refrains. “Takes two to know! TWO to KNOW!” flashing a V-for-victory sign. The freaks and the oddballs had won out, or at least they’d persevered, if keeping to their own worlds, as Syd had. By 2006, Arnold Layne had become a late 20th Century saint: Bowie, Gilmour and Richard Wright sang his name over and over again in tribute.

Two months after this performance, Barrett died of complications related to diabetes. Wright died of cancer in 2008. Gilmour keeps on; he revived Pink Floyd one last time in 2014 for a scrap reclamation effort; he’s got a new album coming this year, it’ll probably hit #1. Waters tours The Wall endlessly (it’s lasted longer now than the old Berlin one). And David Bowie has never performed live in Britain again.

Recorded 29 May 2006, RAH, London. “Arnold Layne” was released 25 December 2006 as a UK/European single (EM 717), with Bowie and Rick Wright’s versions of the song and Gilmour’s take on “Dark Globe.” “Arnold Layne” and “Comfortably Numb” were released 17 September 2007 on the DVD/Blu-Ray Remember That Night: David Gilmour, Live at the Royal Albert Hall.

* For instance, see other one-week UK LP #1s of early 2006: Morrissey’s Ringleader of the Tormentors, the Strokes’ First Impressions of Earth, The Streets’ Hardest Way to Make an Easy Living, etc.

Top: “Tom,” “South Bank Portrait,” London, 13 October 2006.

BOOK HYPE: As I think I’ve mentioned, the e-book version of Rebel Rebel‘s now available, for everything from Kindle to iTunes to Nook to Google Play. See the “electronic” list on the book page.

And I’ll be the guest of Evan “Funk” Davies on WFMU this Wednesday, 29 April, from 9 to midnight EDT. So tune in: there should be a lot of Bowie played. The show will be archived on Evan’s page afterward.


Province

April 15, 2015

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Province (TV on the Radio, with David Bowie).

In 2003, Dave Sitek, a painter and musician from Brooklyn, made a score—he sold a painting to David Bowie’s doorman, who also promised to pass on Sitek’s band’s CD to his employer. His boss was impressed (their dark doo-wop version of the Pixies’ “Mr. Grieves” may have sold him).* Two years later, Bowie was singing on a TV on the Radio track. So some advice to the ambitious young: cultivate good relations with doormen.

Sitek formed TV on the Radio with friend and fellow illustrator Tunde Adebimpe (it began as a joke, the two of them doing karaoke one night, drunk on Red Bull and vodka, Adebimpe improvising lyrics over Sitek’s beatboxing); they were eventually joined by Kyp Malone, Jaleel Bunton and the late Gerard Smith. TVotR seemed programmed to be a band Bowie loved: most members were also visual artists and actors; they played multiple instruments and were devoted genre-minglers (Malone joined the band to “marry early ’90s noise with Usher”); they were part of a “local” NYC scene, the turn-of-the-century Williamsburg that also spawned the Liars and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs (whose 2003 breakthrough Fever to Tell Sitek produced).

TVotR also stood in contrast to Bowie’s other current favorite, Arcade Fire: cool and brooding (“calmer than cream,” as Adebimpe sang on “Young Liars”), where AF were boiling and frantic; offering millennial New York boho sophistication compared to the AF’s shambling Canadian glee club feel (the latter came off as “Salvation Army volunteers who had forgotten to go home after Christmas,” the critic Sasha Frere-Jones wrote after seeing Arcade Fire in 2007).

Enjoying their EP Young Liars, Bowie took on a mentoring role for the band, asking questions about their songwriting, boosting them on his website, listening to early mixes of their first album, Desperate Youth, Bloodthirsty Babes. Some of this was Bowie in his usual role as well-heeled fan. Some of it was him making up for lost time—he’d been so consumed with his own work in the past that he’d lost opportunities to develop younger acts (case in point, Devo, whose 1978 debut he’d eagerly wanted to produce but, as he was filming a movie and going off on a six-month tour, he had to turn the console over to Eno).

So when TVotR was recording Return to Cookie Mountain in summer 2005, the semi-retired Bowie offered to work on the album. “I told him, ‘If you want to come into the studio and be the boss of things, you totally can,’” Sitek told Tiny Mix Tapes in 2008. “I gave him the demos of the songs, and “Province” just really resonated with him in terms of being a relevant song to our times and what the world needed to hear. He just wanted to do it. He just showed up my studio and did it. He’s a spectacular person.” As per usual, Bowie impressed with his charm and humility. “It’s not like he landed on the roof of the building and it was ‘And now, David Bowie’,” Adebimpe recalled, while Malone added that “I never expected to be in a situation where I’m at a mixing board asking David Bowie to enunciate a consonant.”

bowietvotr

Bowie centering on “Province” wasn’t a surprise, as the track’s lyrics (“try to breathe while the world disintegrates”), tempo and trudging, cycling chord progression suggested some Heathen tracks: Sitek’s guitar even had a few tonal similarities to Gerry Leonard’s work. Cookie Mountain was meant to be a loose collective response to mid-2000s America, a work conceived in rage but delivered in abstraction (barring a few blunt tracks, like their ode to George W. Bush, “Dry Drunk Emperor”).

The trick was how to fit Bowie into an already-dense vocal arrangement. TVotR’s first EP had the multi-tracked Adebimpe supplemented by singers Katrina Ford and Shannon Funchess, and when Malone joined for the first album, the band’s vocal tracks became meshes of two colliding lead singers (see the a capella “Ambulance”), with occasional spices from other vocalists like Ford. On “Province,” Bowie starts the first verse as the high end of the harmony (his typical guest-star role) but he’s soon overtaken by Malone in his highest register. So Bowie spends the rest of the track fighting to stay heard, sometimes echoing Adebimpe, capturing the occasional phrase, sliding in low for the refrains—it’s one of his more democratic moments.

TV on the Radio keeps on today, though the Williamsburg of their youth is gone. Sitek had to close his Stay Gold studio in 2009 after his landlord tripled the rent; today it’s the site of Brooklyn’s first J. Crew.

Recorded ca. June-August 2005, November 2005, Stay Gold Studio, Williamsburg, NYC. Released on 6 July 2006 on Return to Cookie Mountain. (In 2009, TVotR cut a version of “Heroes” for the charity CD War Child).

* Adebimpe told the NME: “We were at a gas station and Dave (Sitek) got the phone call and hung up the phone, ‘cause he thought it was our friend Julian pulling another joke: ‘Yeah, you’re David Bowie, right.’ [DB] called him back two more times and said ‘No, I’m really David Bowie.”

Top: Han Soete, “General Strike in Belgium,” 7 October 2005; Bowie backstage at Madison Sq. Garden with TVotR and Karen O., 18 October 2005. (Brooklyn Vegan).

Book news: Rebel Rebel is now available as an e-book for a variety of readers, including Kindle & Nook. Please see the book page for links.


Wake Up

April 8, 2015

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Wake Up (Bowie and Arcade Fire, broadcast, 2005).
Wake Up (Arcade Fire and Bowie, live, 2005 (fragment)).
Reflektor (Arcade Fire, with Bowie vocals, 2013).

Some of it’s the lighting, some of it’s the TV facepaint, and hi-definition video does the face few favors, even for the photogenic. But Bowie, for the first time in his life, looks frail and old. He looks as if something’s been wrung out of him. The band Arcade Fire crowds him on the stage but he’s happy for the company, happy to be mistaken, at a distance, for one of them.

It’s September 2005, Bowie’s first live performance since his heart operation. It’s “Fashion Rocks,” a ceremony in which the fashion industry toasts itself and donates money to a catastrophe somewhere far away (post-Katrina New Orleans, in this case). Strumming a 12-string acoustic, Bowie takes the first verse of Arcade Fire’s “Wake Up,” his phrasing little two-beat jabs. Something…filled up…my heart…with nothing…Now that….I’m older..my heart…colder…I can…see that it’s a lie.

His body, which he’d always been able to manipulate as he’d like, his happy soldier, now seems guarded, wary. He nods on the beat, sways on the snare hits. On the ragged communal chants (even the unmiked string players howl along), he holds back, sometimes stepping away from his mic, then joins in, a shaky higher flavor in the mix. After some lines about children growing bigger but never growing up and out of it, the song shifts into the “You Can’t Hurry Love” (and “Lust for Life”) beat, sounding scattered and diffuse here, with Bowie taking the lead again on a line about becoming a rain god and meeting Death.

He’d opened his set with “Life on Mars?,” with just Mike Garson on piano. In diminished voice (the vault on “Sai-LORS” now a modest lift), he took the song at a distance, appraising it, wondering at it. He sang its cut-up nonsensical second verse solemnly, as if offering recollections from a dying language. Then he did “Five Years,” with Arcade Fire brought on as backing band, which he delivered as a missive from a future that never happened. Too bad (in gleeful John Cale voice). “Five years! God, that’s all we got!” Bowie shouted towards the end, his voice fraying, Win Butler taking over the harmonies. Then he gave the stage over to Arcade Fire.

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I don’t wanna live in America no more
Because the tide is high
And it’s rising still
And I don’t wanna see it at my windowsill

Arcade Fire, “Windowsill.”

By the time of the presidential election of 2004, the image that many Americans (often younger ones, but not always) had of their northern neighbor had changed. What once had been genial indifference became a sense of longing, of envy, even. O Canada, country with a nationalized health care system, no Patriot Act, no Iraq War and run by a benign-seeming Liberal Party, of which most Americans knew nothing (but, hey, they had “liberal” in their name). Canada became a dreamland for alienated Americans: an alternate country above the 49th Parallel (are the winters really that bad?), a U.S. shed of its less desirable elements.

It didn’t help that were all of these Canadian collectives roaming around—the seven-member New Pornographers, the eight-person Godspeed You Black Emperor!, the sometimes-19(!)-strong Broken Social Scene. I knew a guy in an American indie rock band at the time, and he was bewildered by the logistics. “Do they all go broke on the road? Who can carry two violin players?” Canadian indie rock had a layer of unseen supports, its tours seemingly the beneficiary of the Canada Health Act and generous government arts grants.

“We should just go to Canada”: a sentiment heard around the country on the night after the election (I heard it at the West Village bar Fiddlesticks on that crashed-out evening). (“The American people have spoken—is that certain? Maybe those nice Midwestern folks were just jokin’!Nellie McKay sang.) Arcade Fire, arriving right at this time, was the culmination of the fantasy. Win Butler was an American, from Texas, no less, home of the president; his father had even worked for Dick Cheney’s Halliburton. He’d run off to Canada, fallen in love, had formed a band in Montreal with his wife, his brother and some friends.

So Arcade Fire offered an American-Canadian bohemia—a popular bohemia, even (they won some Grammys). They drew from and trafficked in childhood: the flip-books in the Neon Bible box, the corroded Yellow Submarine graphics of their videos, the neighborhood jamboree feel of their live performances, where they came off like a better-rehearsed Portsmouth Sinfonia–it was as if they’d taken up their instruments at random, that the next night Sarah Neufeld would play drums and Regine Chassagne would be on lead guitar.

The songs on their first record were worlds depopulated of adults and given over to children. Streetlights out, power failures, empty highways, snowdrifts. Lost brothers and vampires. Tunnels, legends and maps, tribal boasts: “‘cos nothing’s hid from us kids,” or, in one of their first songs: “us kids know.” The school music room garnishes—the sleigh bells on “Neighborhood #2,” the accordions, harpsichords and xylophones. In their video for “Rebellion (Lies),” they’re a pied piper collective, parading down a suburban street and waking up slumbering kids, who fall in line behind them.

It was a world shaped by distorted memories of Richard Scarry and Maurice Sendak books; it was the ideal of a reconstituted childhood as a form of protest against the adult world. Arcade Fire was the musical analogue of Dave Eggers (who’d soon adapt Where the Wild Things Are), who’d raised his eight-year-old brother after their parents had died, who’d written a book about it and who, with McSweeney’s, offered another childhood order suited for adults: the Secret Club, with its stamp books, membership cards and shibboleths (“that is all”).

Arcade_Fire-Arcade_Fire_y_David_Bowie_At_Fashion_Rocks_Live_(Ep)-Frontal

Bowie was fascinated. “Arcade Fire has a very strong theatrical flair, a boisterous, college kind of feel to what they’re doing, and also there’s a wave of enthusiasm to it,” he said in 2005. “But their show is theatrical nonetheless, because it doesn’t alter much from night to night. I’ve seen them many times, and I love them very much. I think they’re exhilarating.” He joined the band again live the following week, singing “Queen Bitch” and “Wake Up” in their encore at SummerStage.

Then he went away; Arcade Fire kept at it. Neon Bible was an expatriate’s curse on America (its title taken from a John Kennedy Toole novel that was, in Toole’s words, ” a grim, adolescent, sociological attack upon the hatreds caused by the various Calvinist religions in the South”), with some back-channel communications via Springsteen and John Cafferty tributes. The Suburbs found Butler returning home, a poseur snapping at the generation of poseurs coming up after him (see “Rococo”); the album ended with what sounded like their last song, their credo piece for suburban misfits, the band’s natural constituency (“come out and find your kind!”), its music a mingle of an MTV-fed youth (the beat of “Come On Eileen,” the hook of “The Safety Dance”), its video a tribute to Pink Floyd’s The Wall (there’s also a bit of “Wish You Were Here” in “Wake Up”). The band got tighter, their records became more spacious, if losing the edge of Funeral, where the guitars sounded as if they’d been strung with baling wire.

Reflektor was a band’s midlife crisis: a labored attempt to change the palette while layering on the mythology thicker (see the respective Orpheus and Eurydice songs on Disc 2; see also the idea of a “Disc 2”). It was their go at doing a Remain In Light; it only worked on their Haitian-inspired piece “Here Comes the Night Time” (yet another Eighties tribute—here, the Cure’s “Close to Me”).

The title track was a hidden reunion with Bowie (only credited in the “thank you” section of the liners), who’d kept on being a fan during his absent years. He visited the band in a New York studio while they were mixing Reflektor. “It was just after The Next Day had come out,” Arcade Fire’s Richard Reed Parry told the NME last year. “He offered to lend us his services because he really liked the song. In fact, he basically threatened us—he was like, ‘If you don’t hurry up and mix this song, I might just steal it from you!’ So we thought, well why don’t we go one better, why don’t you sing on our version? Thankfully he obliged.”

“Reflektor” wasn’t that radical a shift, as the band had always tried to dance, in their way (there’s a frenzied disco hi-hat in “Neighborhood #1”) and the track fell in Arcade Fire’s tradition of being happily shameless in their dork-theater routines—see its performance on Saturday Night Live, where Chassagne got into a glass box and did a sort-of mime routine, or Butler sporting raccoon makeup in its video. Arcade Fire perseveres, having grown up to be Bowie’s contemporaries where they once were his charges. They’re the closest thing that indie rock has to an institution these days, God help them.

Recorded: (Fashion Rocks) 8 September 2005; (live) 15 September 2005. The Fashion Rocks recordings were issued as a digital single on 21 November 2005. “Reflektor,” the lead-off single of the LP it titled, was released on 9 September 2013.

Top: Daska, “Children,” 2005.


The Cynic

March 31, 2015

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The Cynic (Kashmir, with David Bowie).

My integration into civilian life was not easy. It was very gradual, but I definitely was so busy that the amount of what I’m doing in a week is what I used to do in a morning. And you feel like you’re sick, you’re wearing your robe. And then all of a sudden I was like, “Wait a minute, I can watch movies. This is part of my job. I’m gonna watch movies I want to see. I’m gonna take care of that dentist appointment.”

Matthew Weiner, on the end of Mad Men.

I’ve erased several months
It’s turning into a year now…

Kashmir, “The Cynic.”

Whether on doctor’s orders or due to his own misgivings about getting back on the merry-go-round, as an old friend once put it, Bowie spent the 12 months after his heart operation in semi-retirement, doing only the occasional guest vocal session. But he wasn’t in seclusion. Living in Soho, Bowie sampled the hip new bands who came to town, avoiding attention by wearing a cap and glasses and sporting, at various times, a mustache and beard. It was his “Berliner workman” days again, only now he wasn’t working.

How did he have so much time to see all of these bands? Dave Itzkoff asked in 2005 (in what would be Bowie’s last to-date print interview). He had nothing but time, he replied. “Fortunately, I’m not working [laughs]. So I’m resting. I get out a lot. I am a New Yorker, very much, and I get out in New York. It’s just a place that I adore. And I love seeing new theater; I love seeing new bands, art shows, everything. I get everywhere—very quietly and never above 14th Street. I’m very downtown.

So he saw TV On the Radio and the Secret Machines. He saw Franz Ferdinand at the Roseland Ballroom, twice (introducing himself to the starstruck band backstage, Bowie baffled them by doing an impersonation of the Dandy Warhols’ lead singer). Interpol at the Hammerstein Ballroom. Clap Your Hands Say Yeah at the Knitting Factory. Arcade Fire at the Bowery Ballroom and Irving Plaza. The Killers at Irving Plaza.*

Tony Visconti attended the latter, bringing as his plus-one the Danish singer and guitarist Kasper Eistrup of Kashmir, a band Visconti was readying to produce. So Eistrup, in town “on a guitar shopping spree,” wound up meeting Bowie in the VIP balcony. True to form, Bowie said he was a fan of Kashmir and had some of their albums, then began talking about culture, politics and whatever other subjects he was musing on that evening. The three wound up sharing a ride afterward.

Visconti and Bowie had been vaguely planning a new record, which Bowie seemed in little hurry to begin recording. He told the jazz musician Courtney Pine, in a radio interview in September 2005, that he’d started writing songs for a new album (“it looks pretty weird, so I’m happy”), but there were apparently no studio sessions booked. If there were demos, Bowie cut them at home: Visconti wasn’t hearing them.

There was an ambivalence in Bowie’s conversation with Pine (the former’s last radio interview to date). Asked what his fans were expecting from the new album, Bowie responded, “Oh they don’t expect anything these days, I think they just sorta see what I put out…you know, it’s the luck of the draw and sometimes it works really well and sometimes it’s godawful and…but that’s the way it goes and I like that.

kashmr

As he had from the renewal of their friendship, Visconti offered Bowie walk-on roles on his other productions (see the Rustic Overtones or “Saviour”).** Working on Kashmir’s album in Copenhagen in March 2005, Visconti was convinced that one track, “The Cynic” (“it had the vibe of a Kurt Cobain song influenced by Bowie”), could use a Bowie vocal, to the point where Visconti sang Bowie imitations (“I can do a decent ‘Heroes'”) for scratch vocals in the second verse. He emailed Bowie the rough mix and Bowie agreed to sing on it. For Kashmir, “it was everyone’s birthday and Christmas morning at the same time,” Visconti said.

Returning to New York in late April 2005, Visconti, Eistrup and Kashmir bassist Mads Tunebjerg did mixing and post-production work at Looking Glass Studios. One morning Bowie appeared, “fresh as a daisy and enthusiastically sang the be-Dickens out of ‘The Cynic’ as if he’d written it himself,” Visconti said. Tunebjerg recalled that once he was in the booth, Bowie said “‘Tony, just roll the tape for me. I’m going to try and have a go at it.’ He knew the song, he had it on his iPod (afterward, Bowie played the band other selections from his current track list). He had one or two runs and he was there. We were sitting on the sofa. We couldn’t move or speak because the atmosphere was so intense.

Bowie even had a role in the video, a Constructivist-inspired piece in which Bowie, looking like the Patrick Troughton edition of Doctor Who, is Death as a butler.

db_kashmir_300k

Kashmir started in 1991 and had become one of Denmark’s biggest “alternative” bands by the turn of the century. “We are like a boy band with four different characters: there is the little thin one and there is the tall guy and there is the media guy who is good looking and then there is the semi-fat guy who is dancing around,” Eistrup said. Their Visconti-produced record was a bid to break the American market, which didn’t happen. But the band has persevered until this day, still playing and recording, still believers that rock music can offer something to its audience. “That’s one of the most important things about art and that is the actual answer to why art is important because it can be out of time, it can be out of reason, it can be just commenting whatever is in the mind of the person who expresses it,” Eistrup said in 2013. “That little country of freedom can inspire the rest of the assholes to do things in a different way.”

“The Cynic” was a decent piece of brooding post-Radiohead rock, with Bowie’s verse finding him easily handling Eistrup’s knotty melody, then biting into the long vowels in the refrains. Bowie sounded comfortably decayed; he could’ve fashioned a bespoke version of Kashmir or Interpol or Franz Ferdinand easily enough in 2006. The question was whether he wanted to anymore. The answer seems apparent now: No, I’m happy in the audience.

Recorded: March-April 2005, Sun Studio, Copenhagen; (vocals) ca. April-May 2005, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 October 2005 on No Balance Palace (Columbia 82876 72767 2).

* Some of these venues are above 14th St., so Mr. “Very Downtown” apparently had to take a cab once in a while.

** A shame Visconti didn’t get Bowie into his finest production of the 2000s, Dean Wareham and Britta Phillips’ L’Avventura. That said, it would have been hard for Bowie to find a place to work on such an intimate album. L’Avventura is a document of two ridiculously attractive people falling in love, yet avoiding solipsism to make their union some public ideal of romance.

*** Visconti also roped in Lou Reed, who recited an Eistrup poem, “Black Building.” “It took a long time to actually get Lou into the studio, but when he came he was well-rehearsed and even prepared a special character for the part. He said he’s got about seven voice characters he uses when he does readings of his poetry. Lou was fabulous, he did about three or four takes for us to choose from and even took a phone call from a Tibetan lama in-between takes. Then, like a New York ninja, he disappeared into the chaos of Broadway as soon as he was finished.”

Eistrup’s memories were less reverent. Reed “was anything but sociable. He demanded that the studio be vacated, then that the whole band smoke. He gave me the vaguest handshake I have ever had in my life… He looked at [my] poem and straightened it. I had used words like pubs that he straightened to bars.

Top: Dante Busquets, “Tenis (Torres de Satélite),” Mexico, 2005.


Rebel Rebel: A Book

March 27, 2015

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A man who publishes his Works in a Volume, has an infinite Advantage over one who communicates his Writings to the World in loose Tracts and single pieces.

Joseph Addison, The Spectator, No. 124.

Today’s the day: Rebel Rebel is available everywhere (well, in theory). You can buy it via on-line vendors, including Amazon and Book Depository. The e-book should be up in a day or so. There will be some promotions in the next few months: Books Etc. is currently running a discount until May. For UK readers: this £16 sale price is about as low as I’ve seen, promo-wise.

And as a fan of bookstores, I’d love it if you asked your local shop to get a few copies. Above is my local bookstore, White Square Books. In the UK, Foyles and Waterstones should carry it, but it would be great to have it in smaller shops as well.

I’ve been hyping the book for some time now: see the book page for updates, the talks page for extensive radio/podcast interviews and the press page for just shameless self-promotion. Thanks for your patience. The “regular” blog will resume next week, with a fun set of entries, featuring Scarlett Johansson, Arcade Fire and little fat men with pug-nosed faces.

Those who have bought the book, or who are considering doing so, thank you for your support. It means more than you can imagine. Some people have even taken shots of their copies and put them on various social media. The idea that someone thinks enough of your writing that they took a photo of the thing is beyond humbling.

I’ve little left to say about the book, which took three-plus years to write, except that I hope you enjoy it.

The Addison quote above is a feint, as in the following sentence he moves to ridicule “bulky Volumes” for which “the most severe Reader makes Allowances for many Rests and Nodding-places…a great Book is a great Evil.” Writing his triweekly newspaper essays, Addison was essentially an 18th Century blogger. For his ilk, there was no room for padding or preambles. “We must immediately fall into our Subject and treat every Part of it in a lively Manner, or our Papers are thrown by as dull and insipid.” I hear you, Addison.

Here was my challenge—how to take the little essays that I put up on the Internet and turn them into something that would justify people paying for a collection of them? Besides it being a vanity project, a tip-jar sort of thing? It helped that the first few months of the blog, esp. the pre-“Space Oddity” essays, were dashed out quickly, with little care. So my revision at first centered on improving those entries, shoring them up, adding more context: that sort of thing.

There were other choices. I needed a more uniform writing style for the entries, which meant I had to gut and rewrite the weird one-offs like the personal narrative in “Changes” and the cut-up aesthetic disaster of the “Sweet Thing” entry. I looked for fresher, more varied quotes. I reduced the level of snark and glibness (fans of “Time” will rejoice), though you still get the occasional nose-tweak—the book’s far from reverent towards its subject. I tried to confine the music theory to a paragraph per entry and exile much of it to the end notes, as I know some people glaze over when they read that stuff.

I think it turned out all right. Hope you do as well.

All best,

C.O.


(She Can) Do That

March 18, 2015

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(She Can) Do That.

The official Bowie narrative: after the sudden end of A Reality Tour, he takes a step back, assesses his life and slowly, imperceptibly, he fades into the twilight, not to return for a decade….

Well, yes, but wait. There’s one problem with this story. Bowie released a new song in 2005. This track, not “Bring Me the Disco King,” was the last studio recording issued under his name until The Next Day. Much of Bowie fandom wants to wish the thing away. Many hated it at the time. It’s understandable: the Bowie story shouldn’t have (possibly) ended with some clang-bang dance track he cut for the soundtrack of Stealth, one of 2005’s notable commercial and critical disasters.

But we can’t ignore it; we can’t pretend that it never happened. It’s “(She Can) Do That.” Listen to it and accept that the man who wrote “Heroes” also wrote this, and he wrote it at a time when he was convalescing, after years of making brooding retrospective albums and “Last Songs.”

keep going don’t stop now keep going take cover keep going be cool…

To be fair, Bowie only wrote the lyrics and top line melody. The rest was cooked up by the producer Brian Transeau (aka BT) and the Berklee professor Richard Boulanger, who worked on the refrain. In early 2005, Bowie cut his vocal at his usual studio, Looking Glass in New York, with Tony Visconti producing and Kristeen Young allegedly singing backing vocals (I don’t hear her, though). Bowie sent the Pro Tools files to BT in Los Angeles, where BT finished the mix. It wound up being used in a dance club scene in Stealth whose dramatic purpose is to establish Jamie Foxx as a ladies man.

STEALTH!!!!!!!

What was Bowie doing? A tribute to/reworking of Hawkwind’s “You Shouldn’t Do That“? A tip of the hat to the Hamtaro theme song? An out-of-nowhere attempt to homage Stop Making Sense-era David Byrne, at a time when Byrne was calm and melancholic? An update of “Right,” another song in which Bowie’s bucking himself up during a dark time?

Of course, one can be cynical and say that Bowie put as much thought into his vocal as he did his coffee order at Dean and DeLuca the morning he cut it. If the brief was “do a dance track for a Jamie Foxx Top Gun ripoff updated for the War on Terror,” there are only so many options.

It’s also obvious Bowie was using “(She Can) Do That” as a tentative first step back into the studio after a long period of recuperation. The question is whether its sound portended a stylistic move. Before his heart operation, Bowie had mentioned to interviewers that he wanted to get back in the studio with Visconti in late 2004, and that he planned something divergent from the Heathen/Reality sound—possibly even cutting an all-instrumental album or something “experimental.”

Was the move meant to be a return to Earthling? Was Bowie actually considering making an EDM record in 2005? Did he listen to a playback of “(She Can) Do That,” have a road-to-Damascus moment and swear off making records for nearly a decade? It’s all speculative.

Full of BT’s trademarks, including the “stutter edit,” vocal pitch shifting and subtle time changes, “(She Can) Do That” ultimately was the Laughing Gnome, back for the millennium, as shameless and irritating as ever. So Bowie’s “last” track for eight years is him thumbing his nose on his way out the door, wondering why people always took him so damned seriously.

Recorded: (Bowie vocal) ca. early 2005, Looking Glass Studios, NYC; music, mixing (LA, early 2005). Released 12 July 2005 on the Stealth OST (Epic EK 94475 ).

Top: Joshua Bousel, “Daphne and Blair’s Last Month Single Party,” December 2005; a stealthy trio.


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