Killing a Little Time

May 4, 2020

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Killing a Little Time (Bowie).
Killing a Little Time (Lazarus, Michael C. Hall).

Most of Bowie’s Blackstar/No Plan songs accept death or dismiss it; they regret having to leave and grumble about doing the packing. And then there’s “Killing a Little Time,” a rage at death in a would-be heavy metal/jazz fusion piece: a strange, garish anomaly among Bowie’s last works.

Take its opening guitar riff, F and E notes played over E minor and A minor chords, with a descending A-G#-F tag. Perhaps this started off as Bowie considering some sort of Bill Frisell or Marc Ribot-inspired accompaniment, but the end result is more chest-puffed-out adolescent riffing, with another guitar even harmonized two steps up in a classic cheesy Eighties metal move.

Donny McCaslin recalled that “it was always this angry, pissed off-song.” A labored-over composition, “Killing a Little Time” was first cut in the January 2015 Blackstar sessions, its initial arrangement having prominent synthesizer parts. When recut in March, the instrumentation was simplified, with McCaslin scoring new horn parts and “harmoniz[ing] them in this dark way,” he told Mojo. Its highlight is the drum track, one of Mark Guiliana’s master performances in the sessions. While technically in 4/4 (as emphasized by his clanging cymbal pattern), Guiliana sounds as if he’s doubling time on alternating beats in every measure, which, along with Tim Lefebvre’s syncopated bassline, makes “Killing a Little Time” lurch, sway, rumble. It feels punch-drunk—one comparison, and a possible influence, is the similar time distortion in “If You Can See Me.”

As often, Bowie had a sharp eye when watching his collaborators. “Killing a Little Time” sounds as if he’s processing what he’d taken from his composing sessions and small group workshops with Maria Schneider in 2014. He (and McCaslin) drew from her “Sue” arrangement (see how McCaslin scores his woodwinds in the second verse of “Killing a Little Time”) and, for organizational and tonal ideas, Bowie’s favorite of Schneider’s compositions, “Dance You Monster to My Soft Song” (1994), a piece that McCaslin said helped him “get inside of [“Killing”] a little bit.” (Henry Hey’s arrangement for Lazarus keeps close to Bowie/McCaslin’s, with a few minor changes such as substituting horns for keyboard chord support in the intro, while the lead-up to the refrain lacks McCaslin’s ascending woodwind line.)

Lyrically, the song also took a long path—Bowie kept revising lines and cut his final vocals at the very end of the sessions (a key difference between the Blackstar songs and the ones consigned to Lazarus/No Plan is that the latter were far more reworked in the studio, McCaslin said, with tracking sessions spread out over months and various arrangements tried out).

Tim Lefebvre said in 2018 that “Killing a Little Time” began as a song originally reported as an outtake, “Black Man of Moscow,” whose title subject was a) an undisclosed medieval czar, perhaps along the same lines as the unnamed medieval villain of “The Next Day” and/or b) the nineteenth-century Russian poet Pushkin, who had African ancestry. “I lay in bed/ the monster fed/ the body bled/ I turned and said” isn’t quite a Pushkin sonnet, though.

In Lazarus, Michael C. Hall sings “this tidal wave” as “thees tidal waaave,” and treats the long notes as if they’ve done him harm. It’s his most Hedwig and the Angry Inch moment in the play. In his recording (which predates Hall’s), Bowie hangs back more, although he expectorates “fuck you over” and bites into his blood-sponge words (“sym-pho-neeee,” “fyur-ious raaaaaaain”) with as much relish as Hall does. 

No surprise that “Killing a Little Time” didn’t make the cut for Blackstar: it would have been tonally jarring in the LP sequence and had perhaps too many similarities to “Sue” and the title track (compare its refrain to the “Blackstar” coda). The most overlooked of Bowie’s final compositions, “Killing a Little Time,” if a bit leaden, is also sharp and fresh. It’s a launching point for a scrapped mission: it could have led to somewhere interesting, had Bowie been granted some more years to write.

It was used in Lazarus as a piece for Thomas Jerome Newton to sing when his deranged assistant Elly and the killer Valentine invade his apartment. Until the outtake “Blaze” is released (will it ever be?), “Killing a Little Time” is Bowie’s last-ever studio vocal: a petulant rant whose core demand is that of his 1969 “Cygnet Committee”I want to live! If he can’t, he’ll bring the house down with him.

Recorded: (backing tracks) 23 March 2015, Magic Shop; (overdubs) ca. April 2015; (vocals) 19 May 2015, Human Worldwide. First release: 21 October 2016, Lazarus: The Original New York Cast.

Top photo: Juan Salmoral, “103rd Street, New York”, 11 September 2015.


Diamond Dogs at 33 1/3rd

April 16, 2020

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Glenn Hendler is a professor of English and American studies at Fordham University and author of the just-published 33 1/3rd book on Bowie’s Diamond Dogs. This is the second book in the 33 1/3rd series on Bowie’s albums—the previous one is Hugo Wilcken’s Low, now nearly 15 years old (!).

Given that Glenn’s book promotion was hit by the ongoing pandemic nightmare, I wanted to interview him in depth to give you a sense of what his study of Diamond Dogs is about. You can buy the book directly from his publisher here. He and I exchanged a series of emails in early April, which I’ve edited into the following conversation. Hope you enjoy.

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CO: Let’s start with the writing of the book. When did you pitch the idea to 33 1/3rd, and was Diamond Dogs always the LP you wanted to do? It’s the first in the series since Wilcken’s Low. One might have thought that 33 1/3rd would have gone with a warhorse like Ziggy or Scary Monsters as the next Bowie volume, so I was delighted when I saw they’d picked you.

Glenn Hendler: At least since I became someone who writes about culture—studying film history and theory as an undergrad, going to grad school and becoming an English professor—I’ve long fantasized about writing about David Bowie. Decades ago, I even sketched out an article about Lou Reed and Bowie, and their related but different ways of addressing their listeners (probably the only thing it would have had in common with the DD book is that it would have included the word “interpellation”). Somewhat more recently, I jotted down some notes about an article I wanted to write about singing “Kooks” to my kid from the time he was a few days old (I still do, most nights). But I kept writing about the 19th Century, which wasn’t going to lead me back to David Bowie.

Then two things happened. By sheer coincidence, I ended up sitting next to then-33 1/3 editor Ally-Jane Grossan on a plane, noticed that she was reading interesting-looking things about music, and engaged her in conversation. She asked—as I’m sure 33 1/3 editors always do when they encounter a chatty fan of the series!—what album I’d want to write about. I said that while the most obvious album would be Ziggy Stardust, I might have more to say about Diamond Dogs…and that there were lots of other options, too! She was politely encouraging, said there was only the one Bowie book in the series and they’d be open to doing another if the proposal grabbed their interest.

I kept that idea percolating for a long time. Then Bowie died, I took those notes about “Kooks,” and—very quickly, especially for an academic—pulled together an article that was published on the Avidly blog of the Los Angeles Review of Books. That got some positive responses…including from one of the then-new four-member editorial team at 33 1/3, Kevin Dettmar (who also wrote the volume on Gang of Four’s Entertainment). I just submitted a proposal in response to an open call, and was thrilled that it was accepted.

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CO: So, our first hearings of Diamond Dogs are rather different. You first hear it in 1974, at age 12, which seems like the perfect age! I was 18, in late 1990, buying the Ryko CD reissues in rough release order.

And I didn’t really like Diamond Dogs. I listened to it the least of the batch between Man Who Sold and Station. I’m trying to recall why. Something about it bugged me then—the “cabaret” songs like “Sweet Thing” and “We Are the Dead” didn’t connect at all and I even found them grating. I was into “Big Brother” and “1984” (in part because I already knew them from the Sound + Vision comp) and “Rebel Rebel” was, of course, the hit—the only song you’d hear on Connecticut classic rock radio then. Whereas you describe DD as “the first album that challenged me to study it.” Did it hook you immediately, or was there a period similar to mine where you had to really work to get into it? I feel like I failed the test, back then.

GH: So you grew up in Connecticut, too? When you say, “Connecticut classic rock radio,” I think WPLR—is that right? That’s what I grew up listening to…though my first radio listening came before FM had really caught on, and everyone listened to Top 40 AM radio because you didn’t have a choice.

CO: WPLR, yes, but more WCCC and WHCN, which were the two classic rock monoliths of the late 1980s in Connecticut. These were very canonical-minded—would often do Top 250 Best Rock Songs Ever Blah Blah weekends, etc. (“Stairway to Heaven” always #1). My best friend and I would call them up and ask them to play Husker Du or Fishbone & the DJs would get mad (“that’s not a real group, stop messing around” one said).

GH: I remember WHCN, vaguely. My Bowie listening started when he was mostly just not on the radio at all, at least not the radio I heard. It was totally word of mouth and all about who bought vinyl albums. I remember playing not Diamond Dogs but David Live; that was my real first exposure. It was the guitar on David Live that hooked me first (at the same time, I got into Lou Reed because of Rock ‘n’ Roll Animal; I can still reproduce in my head every note of the long guitar duet at the beginning of “Sweet Jane” on that album).

It was right about then that I got my first stereo and record player, and gave my parents a list of records to get me for my birthday. From that list I got most of the early Bowie albums. I think I liked Man Who Sold the World first—more macho guitars—and a lot of Aladdin Sane. For the same reasons I liked the guitar-heavy songs on the other albums, such as “Suffragette City” and “Ziggy Stardust.” As an indication, the other albums on that initial list included the first two by Bachman-Turner Overdrive (lots of crunching guitar chords; I heard them as similar to “Ziggy Stardust”). Plus: Elton John, who at first vied with Bowie for my affections. I got Caribou and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. There was some hard guitar there (“Saturday Night’s All Right for Fighting”), but Bowie and Elton John both mixed the guitar rock with more piano-based, cabaret-like songs, and I guess that combination stuck with me.

While Diamond Dogs wasn’t the one that hooked me first, at the same time—for those last reasons—I didn’t find the non-rock stuff grating. In fact, because my first exposure was to David Live, and that documented the Diamond Dogs tour, there were more familiar songs on DD than on any other album. I suspect, in retrospect, that it mattered that the David Live version of “Sweet Thing” was more guitar-centric than the original on the album. But—as the book explains—I was really into the lyrics, and that’s what at first challenged me. It just annoyed me that there was no lyric sheet, and so I wanted to figure them out. That led to me listening to the songs with headphones on, over and over, putting the needle back over and over again till I got what I thought were the right lyrics. Since I found myself doing the same thing with headphones on decades later when I was writing the book, it really brought that time back.

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CO: The book opens with the 1980 Floor Show, which remains among the more bizarre things Bowie ever did. You describe Diamond Dogs as an album of transition: would you agree that the Floor Show is the true prelude to it?

Because the Floor Show jumbles everything: the Marquee Club (where DB had a “residency” as a Mod in the ‘60s), Mick Ronson, Marianne Faithfull, the Astronettes, Ziggy, with “1984/Dodo” as a warning sign to fans of what was coming next. Is there a premonition in how Bowie’s tearing down and churning up the past here? And it’s so wonderfully garish and ugly—the lighting is school-theatre quality at times. Did you have the Floor Show as the opening from early on, in the writing of the book?

GH: Yes, from early on. It was such a formative moment for me as a kid, seeing it on TV [it first aired in the US in November 1973 on The Midnight Special]. If anything in the book I understate how much that blew me away, and how much it stuck in my mind for all the decades between the one time I saw it and when finally YouTube came along and I could see bits of it again. I had trouble figuring out how to frame the book with it (especially when I realized I’d seen it in 1974, on its rebroadcast, which kind of ruined the idea that I was among the first to see Bowie on TV in the US).

It was also pretty clear to me that I could use The 1980 Floor Show as a way of concisely getting Bowie’s history before Diamond Dogs into the book. I couldn’t assume that readers knew all that, after all. I think you’re exactly right when you say Bowie was “tearing down and churning up the past” in that show: his own past, the history of rock and pop music, everything. The Troggs represented one weird version of the past (and also stood in a way for Iggy Pop and Bowie’s own (re)discovery of the primitivism of rock music); the songs from Pin Ups on the show represented another. Carmen—I want to research and write more about Carmen! I consulted with some of the major experts on rock and Spanish-language music in Los Angeles, and none of them knew anything about Carmen!—seemed to point toward a future. There’s so much more to be written about that show, and Amanda Lear, and Bowie’s recurring interest in Octobriana, and all the things converging at that moment. The photo book about that show came out as I was writing, and I came across Madeline Bocaro’s really useful blog…but there’s still more to be said.

CO: I forgot about Carmen! And yes, Lear and Octobriana. What could’ve been. Bowie is churning up so much stuff in those months after the last Ziggy show. He’s both liberated and I think rather terrified—he’s ended the thing that’s finally gotten him famous, and only after a year or so. So ‘where to go next?’ consumes him in late 1973. Managing the Astronettes and working with Lulu (at the exact same time he’s making Diamond Dogs!—it’s understandable his coke period reportedly starts around now) suggests he still thought he’d be a songwriter/producer for other acts, too, as a sideline to occupy him if his other projects bombed out.

GH: Yet another never-written chapter would have been about The Astronettes, and had a lot about Ava Cherry as his connection to black music. If my book release party had actually happened—just one week earlier and we wouldn’t have been under quarantine (though I fear we instead would have been unknowingly spreading the virus!), one of the singers was going to be Raquel Cion, who does a Bowie Tribute show called Me and Mr. Jones. Raquel actually knows Ava Cherry—I’d like to have developed that connection and found out some stuff from her! Anyway, I think that’s a good reading of Bowie’s state at this point; liberated but directionless and a little panicked.

Oh, and one other thing: The 1980 Floor Show was a useful way for me to foreground my status as an American writer writing about an artist who was still very British. And to do so unapologetically. It allowed me, essentially, to argue that while the earlier albums had been for a UK audience, at the time of Diamond Dogs Bowie was now playing for me.

CO: I find Diamond Dogs being a UK #1 album fascinating, because it shows how Ziggymania was still red-hot there and how different the cross-Atlantic markets were for Bowie in the 70s. Bowie doesn’t really start moving LPs in the US in substantial numbers until Young Americans.

GH: Yes—another thing cut from the book was a lengthy piece on the difference between the UK and US audiences, including the way radio worked. All that remained was the thread that was about him trying to make it in America in different ways, and that’s pretty undeniable. I am guessing that my rather jaundiced view of the song “Diamond Dogs”—even though it matches Charles Shaar Murray’s—is the thing in my book that would most distress many UK readers, since that song was a pretty big hit there. I’ve always wondered how the world would be different if Bowie had released either “1984” or even “Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me” as the follow-up single to “Rebel Rebel.” Would he have moved from the AOR niche he carved out with “Rebel Rebel” onto black (or rather interracial) radio earlier, before “Fame”? Would “Rock ‘n’ Roll with Me” have put him in competition with Elton John for the piano ballad mainstream? It really is an Elton John song in some ways. “Diamond Dogs” was just a terrible choice for a second single.

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CO: I liked your argument that while Diamond Dogs has three main tributaries—-the stillborn George Orwell adaptation, a Ziggy Stardust cut-up musical, and the William BurroughsWild Boys-inspired Hunger City/Halloween Jack stuff—there’s so much more blurring and interweaving between the concepts within the individual songs. Looking back, I think I pushed the “three albums” idea too hard—I now see DD’s far more of a conceptually murky album than I first considered. Is the power of DD in part because it’s so difficult to get a sense of where Bowie’s coming from?

GH: All I can say to this is “yes.” I think this was the aspect of my book that could have most easily been framed as building on you but also arguing with you—but also with so much other writing about Diamond Dogs that splits it up into parts. And yes, that’s the challenge of the album. I think it’s both more “murky” and more cohesive than it’s been made out to be. I know there’s always a risk of a critic imagining more cohesiveness in the object of analysis than the artist ever imagined, and so I’m sure that some of what I’m doing in the book is making it more cohesive. But even if that’s so, I think that in a way hearing it as more cohesive makes it more interesting to listen to.

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CO: You note how the Diamond Dogs lyrics are often an “I” character that’s addressing a “you,” and that this sort of design isn’t in the service of love songs but more, as you say, along the lines of a policeman yelling “hey, you!” to someone on the street. Was this something you noticed while writing, or had this been something you’d been aware of as a listener, years before? I thought it was an insightful observation. Is there a sense that the whole album is a dialogue between DB and his fans, in this cracked way?

GH: Definitely. If you’ve gotten to what I say about “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” (a song that I always found kind of dull, but came to see as a major part of the record), I think Bowie is kind of explicit about that. I don’t actually think the I/you structure is that unusual for Bowie; I think that’s something he used—selectively but importantly—throughout his career. (That’s what my “Kooks” piece is about, too.) And I think he often thinks about his relationship with his fans. I mean, the whole plot (such as it is) of Ziggy is imagining himself into a character who’s literally torn apart by his fans’ fanaticism. That he wrote and performed this before he really had many fans—that he made it come true through his own performance of it—is part of his brilliance. And that he could make fans (including me) feel that Blackstar was a parting gift to his fans (aren’t those Tony Visconti’s words?) without, this time, actually thematizing his fans (except, a little, in “I Can’t Give Everything Away”) is a sign, to me, that thinking about the performer/fan relation was one of the projects of his career.

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From the Terry O’Neill photo session, 30 January 1974

CO: I’ve called this record “diseased” and “rotten”-sounding before, which you seem to agree with. What do you suppose creates this kind of aural sensation? The distorted instruments? The use of doubling (the bass/harpsichord figures that you mention in “1984”)? Bowie’s scrungy lead guitar lines? The sort of seemingly rough edits in “Big Brother,” as you note? In line with how Bowie was ripping off the Stones openly on the title track and “Rebel Rebel,” I now wonder if it was his take on the sound of Exile on Main St.

GH: I do agree, so long as you meant “diseased” and “rotten” in a good way! And yes, all those factors play into the rottenness it conveys. I’d love to have a conversation with Tony Visconti sometime about what it was like to mix that album. He talks in his book about the brilliant work Bowie had already done in the studio, but it’s also clear that the tapes Bowie brought him were kind of a mess, and I suspect that some of the decisions he made (to accentuate the distortion) probably cover over some badly recorded or deteriorated tracks. And yes, I think the doubling of sounds, and of vocals, is crucial, not just for the general creepiness it produces, but that it also fits the paranoid themes of 1984. I think I say at one point that the second vocal track in “We Are the Dead” is like the state or the Party always watching, always knowing what was happening. [And on ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me’: “You (the Party) always were the one that knew.”] I’m not even sure I quite believe, myself, the claim that the pre-echo of the piano line in that song deliberately refers to that aspect of 1984, but I think it works that way, that it has that effect.

CO: While I haven’t been much of a fan of the new mixes of DB’s old albums, I wouldn’t mind hearing substantially different versions of Diamond Dogs tracks. Feels like there’s so much buried—I wouldn’t be surprised if there were all sorts of backing vocals, saxophone, Mellotron lines that were turfed in the final mix.

GH: Even the minor remixing that’s reproduced in the Who Can I Be Now? collection that I now listen to the most—because I like The Gouster better than Young Americans—clarifies some instruments. The acoustic guitar strumming under “Rebel Rebel,” for instance. My sense is that Mike Garson is the player who lost the most due to the muddy mix on Diamond Dogs. When his piano emerges from the muck for a few moments, it’s either a gorgeous set of chords, as in “Sweet Thing,” or furiously wild playing that does not deserve to be way in the background, as in “Candidate.” I wonder, though, if a better mix might oddly decouple some of the instruments that are so closely mixed that you can’t hear them separately, like the two instruments locked together in “1984,” or whatever interlocked combination of Mellotron and guitar that is playing in “Chant” (I have little idea what the main instruments are there!).

And yes, there’s more to say about the Stones and the “anxiety of influence,” as (if I recall correctly) you call it. I can’t recall if it got into the book or was cut, but I read “Diamond Dogs” itself (the one song on the album I’ve never liked) as Bowie’s effort to create the kind of loose rock band sound that is epitomized on Exile on Main Street, but to do so by splicing a lot of tapes together rather than by gathering a band together in a big old house and recording the jamming together. That’s part of what’s so interesting about the album, is how Bowie hit a set of paradoxes here. Rather than trying to solve the tension between the ideology of authenticity that Simon Reynolds talks about in the 1960s, and the obsessive constructedness that was his method, he just stages that as a contradiction on the album, in song after song.

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CO: That’s a great point. Using a clip of a live Faces recording to kick off the album is part of that, too. “Sampling” rock ‘n’ roll in a way, making his own weird model kit version of it—akin to all the scale models and video clips he was making of Hunger City at the time.

GH: Looking at it that way, it makes perfect sense that he’d go from this to an immersion in the Gamble and Huff Philly sound, and soul music in general, because in that context, there just is no contradiction between authenticity and expressiveness, on the one hand, and a well-constructed and crafted studio album, on the other. I feel like those videos of him orchestrating the intricate call-and-response of “Right,” and then leaning back with a smile as Luther Vandross et al just do it, with feeling, show an artist who has come to a completely different resolution to the conflicts staged in the making of Diamond Dogs. Does that make sense?

CO: Yeah, the usual 180 degree move for Bowie? Young Americans is meant to be communal, live, made “on location” with American Latino and black musicians, with his fans camped right outside the studio while he works (though of course he tinkers with the tapes as much as he did on Diamond Dogs). Tin Machine, 15 years later, is another variation on this.

GH: It is a 180 degree turn in a way, but I think I read it more as a resolution to the problems he staged (fascinatingly) but couldn’t solve on Diamond Dogs. To get a bunch of musicians to work intimately together, but then to work with the tapes and do complex things in the production and mixing process, was not to do two antithetical things in the Gamble & Huff world; that’s just how the music industry worked. It’s only in the rockist (to use a word that wouldn’t have been used at the time) world shaped by people like the Rolling Stones that this would seem like a real problem. I think it’s all tied to Bowie’s shifting understanding of black American culture. The rock version of the ideology of authenticity—which (pace Simon Reynolds) he was still tied to even after the glam years, had to do with the white British vision of a cultural authenticity grounded in the blues. When Bowie started listening to soul and early disco, and the sound of Philadelphia, that kind of gritty authenticity started to seem irrelevant, and studio manipulation wasn’t in tension with spontaneity any more.

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CO: The use of stasis and repetition often gets overlooked on DD: I liked how you showed what “Rebel Rebel” owes to this, how “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” becomes a loop of refrains halfway through. But I’m intrigued by how you came to decide Steve Reich was an influence on “Chant of the Ever Circling Skeletal Family”—I’d thought that was probably too early, but you make a very good case for it (also congrats on nailing the time signatures of that track better than anyone I’ve read—it’s a nightmare!) [I’m not going to spoil it—buy the book.]

GH: That part of the book was me just asking lots of smart people what they thought, and pulling together what they said until I had a synthesis that I thought was right. I put out a general call on Facebook to listen to “Chant” and help figure out the time signature; I asked colleagues in the music department here. And I got lots of technical and other advice that I incorporated.

I started trying to figure out the time signature of “Chant” when I was about 16 or 17. I was at a boarding school in Connecticut, and generally very unhappy there as a semi-local surrounded by rich kids. But my senior year there I got as a roommate a guy named Matt Brubeck, son of Dave Brubeck. He taught me to appreciate a much wider range of music (including jazz, which up to that point I hadn’t listened to, but when you’re spending weekends at the Brubeck home and going to his concerts, you learn to appreciate it). I also tried to convince Dave to appreciate Bowie, without a lot of success. He was an avid listener to all music, so he was patient. The one song he was fascinated by, as I recall, was “Sons of the Silent Age.” Make of that what you will.

At any rate, Matt and I would sit and figure out time signatures of rock and jazz tunes, and specialized in identifying rock songs that were other than 4/4. It’s the only musical concept that I’ve ever really internalized. And I remember sitting with Matt and trying to figure out “Chant,” to no avail. It stumped even him at the time. (I don’t think we ever played that for Dave; I wish we had).

CO: Oh, the idea of Brubeck covering “Chant.”

GH: Anyway, almost 40 years later, when writing the book, I got in touch with Matt and asked him to listen to it again. In the meantime, he’s gotten a Ph.D. in musicology; he is on the faculty at York University in Canada. He’s the one who first suggested Steve Reich-influenced phasing on the song, explained to me how it might work, and pointed me to some basic readings that would help me understand it. (Coincidentally, I also went to hear some Reich performed live at about this time). I took what he told me, wrote it out in a way I could understand it, and sent it back to him; he made a couple of suggestions and corrections, and said he thought I’d got it right. A few of the other people who’d commented on Facebook also agreed. So that’s how I got there—using other people’s brains and knowledge! What I don’t have is a smoking gun, something showing that Bowie was aware of the phasing technique. But there’s Reich music using that technique that Bowie could easily have heard. Here’s another place where I think talking with Tony Visconti could be useful; I bet he’d know more about how that song was put together.

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Bowie and Garson at Olympic Studios, 14 January 1974 (Kate Simon)

CO: When you were revisiting DD for the book, did you revise any opinions you’d long had about it? Did you listen to it in a different way? One trick I used when I was doing my thing was to completely rearrange LP sequences to try to hear them fresh—I often listened to The Next Day in its recording order; same with Blackstar. Curious if you did something similar.

GH: I’ve already mentioned that I never thought much of “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me.” In writing the book, I came to appreciate what he’s doing there (and to like some live versions of it much better than the original; the backing vocalists produce much more dynamism in relation to the song’s repetition). I didn’t so much listen to the songs in a different order, as you did. Mostly I listened to them in isolation from one another, and wrote about them separately. I also initially wrote about them in order, which resulted in a manuscript about twice as long as what Bloomsbury wanted. They assigned me a content editor, who bluntly, though politely, told me what I should have already known: that 33 1/3 books that go in order, track-by-track, rarely work. So she helped me reorder the chapters, which made it much easier to pare down the length. Sometimes when I reread it I think the order works really well; sometimes it seems a little random to me. But I am reasonably confident that it’s much better now that there aren’t 100 continuous pages about “Sweet Thing/Candidate/Sweet Thing (reprise)” (OK, slight exaggeration), and that I deal with different aspects of that—my favorite Bowie piece ever—in different places in the book.

I had thoughts of using Raymond Williams’s keywords idea to organize my Bowie book, since I’ve spent the past decade-plus coediting Keywords books. But then Kevin Dettmar did that for his Gang of Four book. I do think a Keywords for David Bowie would be pretty fun to put together.

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CO: There wasn’t much in the book on DB’s sketches/video ideas for the album (like the Diamond Dogs living on “mealcaine” and the other bizarro stuff from sketches in the museum exhibit). At some point in the writing were you devoting more space to that angle (“the mutant crap” as John Lennon once called it)? Or were you always focusing more strictly on the music/lyrical interpretations, and found such material to be superfluous? 

GH: I’d intended to write more about that stuff when I planned the book, but then (as mentioned) wrote twice as much as 33 1/3 needed, just writing about the music and lyrics. Part of the reason is that I never got into the Bowie archive (despite corresponding with the two curators of David Bowie Is, who were supportive and helpful), and in any event I realized early on that my contribution here was going to be primarily interpretive, not archival. So no, I didn’t think it would be superfluous; I just didn’t take the time and didn’t have the space. I think a whole book could be written on the Diamond Dogs tour, including Bowie’s imagination of the film, how that translated into sets, etc. And that book should probably get going before more of the people involved pass away. There’s so much interesting stuff to be said, and in the course of my initial research I came across some stuff that’s never been in any of the biographies….but I decided that this book had to be just about the album. Even the 1980 Floor Show opening almost had to be cut for space…but I still thought the reader needed a way in, that reading a claustrophobic book about a claustrophobic album wouldn’t be a pleasant experience!

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CO: Did you hear the studio tape that just leaked of Bowie going through five or so takes of “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me”? I found it charming and it made me like the song a bit more.  

[Glenn had not, and listened to the tape.] It is charming, indeed. That’s got to be Garson on piano, right? “Keep it clean, Mike”—trying to get him not to do his trills and frills that he loves so much. It’s so interesting, if this song was early (from the supposed Ziggy musical) that it was still not fully formed at this late date. But “I would take invaders into hand/while tens of millions failed to understand”—those lyrics make more sense in a Ziggy context, not so much in DD. And the shift from “tens of millions” to “tens of thousands” takes it from a global scale to the audience that might be present at a concert. I wonder when he changed the first word from “I” to “you.” That shift almost doesn’t matter: the “I” and the “you” are crucial, by my argument, but also often interchangeable. “Rental heats are counted down?” Yikes.

I guess what’s most striking is the lack of guitar. I wonder if he always intended to add it, or if he meant Garson’s piano to be the lead instrument. I’ve always wondered if Bowie played it himself (as the album credits would indicate) or if it’s another uncredited Alan Parker performance (as in “Rebel Rebel”). From just a few bars in, when the guitar should come in, to the final chords—which were clearly always part of the song but sound so weird just on piano, especially with a Garson trill at the end, as he keeps insisting on doing. Fascinating. Thanks for pointing it out to me.

CO: You didn’t go much into “Alternative Candidate,” the joker in a rigged pack of cards. When I wrote about it for the book, I found it exhausting to interpret—how does it fit in? Was it supposed to, ever? It’s the mystery at the heart of the album sessions for me. Curious if your thoughts on it wound up getting cut for space, since it’s not part of the proper album, or if you hit a similar wall.

GH: Everyone always asks me about “Alternative Candidate.” Someday I’ll have to figure out something to say about it. I never came up with any insights. I am fascinated by its existence, and its small lyrical links to “Candidate,” but I find the teenage boy/mountain-teenage girl/fountain opening just embarrassing, and think that while there are some cool lines (I like the three “I make it a thing” lines, for instance) and as you say in the blog, there are little fragments that either indicate Bowie’s obsessions of the time (the Fuhrerling is a fascinating word. So is the mention of Brylcreem) or would turn up later in other songs. Did you ever hear the unreleased Elvis Costello song “Seconds of Pleasure?” It’s this kind of storehouse of lyrics that later appear in other songs. Seems similar to me. The piano line is interesting—kind of boppy, but a bit ominous at the same time; I can see how he’d want to do something with it.

Ultimately, then, after that free associating, the answer is that I wrote more about the album as I heard it in 1974-5, so no “bonus tracks” come up, as far as I can recall. This is another difference I made consciously from what you did in your book (not to try to be better, but to be different). Yours is structured by Bowie’s creating the music: thus it had to be thorough, and it make perfect sense to write, song-by-song, in the order he produced them. Mine is structured by my listening to the album. No, it’s not in track-by-track order, but it is structured by what I heard then (and how those things seem now, looking back), not by what Bowie did when. I think that’s part of what occasionally makes us hear different things? But I’m not sure about that.

Thanks again to Glenn Hendler. A somewhat lengthier version of this conversation is on the Patreon, for those interested, along with other stuff.


Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me (Again)

April 6, 2020

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Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me (studio takes, 9 January 1974).

A happy surprise in a season of unhappy ones is the recent leak of an Olympic Studios tape of “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” from January 1974. The source is, apparently, someone who made a digital copy of the tape, which was auctioned off by Omega last fall. The winning bidder paid £2,100. Now the world has it—who knows, perhaps the bidder was feeling generous.

As per Omega’s description of the session, from 9 January 1974: “The tape features Bowie pausing frequently to direct the musicians – in total there are six different takes with three being complete. The label lists a final version as “MASTER” but this is no longer present on the reel, presumably having been spliced off to be compiled with other album master tracks, possibly for further overdubbing etc.”

This is exactly the sort of thing—a series of studio takes, with Bowie shifting lyrics around, trying out phrasings and tempos, hitting bum notes, cracking up—that he had no interest in ever releasing. “Official” Bowie outtakes are almost always a complete performance, whether it’s a demo, live recording, fully-mixed studio take, alternate mix of a song, or, a DB favorite, a sketch that he monkeyed with years later to create a fake “lost” song (see “I Pray Ole”). Twenty minutes of Bowie running Mike Garson, Herbie Flowers, and Tony Newman through a song that he’d not quite finished: not so much.

So is it worth a listen? I found it pretty compelling—played it twice through. Not quite sure why, apart from its novelty. Maybe just to hear Bowie and his musicians doing a normal act—working out backing tracks of a song in a studio one night—is now comforting, similar to how films with scenes in restaurants or offices or crowded streets have a sudden, painful nostalgia to them. Random shots of life as we’ve known it our entire lives can seem as remote as film footage of a Cossack charge.

Bowie had been working on what became Diamond Dogs for months when he cut these takes in early January. This period at Olympic, with just Bowie, Garson, Flowers, and Newman on the session, was when the album, which had been a loose collection of songs from various prospective theatrical ventures, finally took shape—they cut much of the “Sweet Thing” sequence, “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me,” “We Are The Dead,” “Big Brother” and “Diamond Dogs” alone in roughly 10 days (along with an early version of “Can You Hear Me”).

Hearing “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” in a stripped-down, developing state improves the song for me. It was always an odd fit for Diamond Dogs, playing the role that a cover song like “Fill Your Heart” or “It Ain’t Easy” had on Bowie’s earlier Seventies albums. A spot of reassurance on a diseased-sounding record, as I once called it—the brass hinge between the “Hunger City” songs on side one and the Nineteen Eighty Four pieces on the second side.

Co-composed by Bowie’s childhood friend (and 1974 tour vocalist) Geoff MacCormack, who came up with some of the verse chords, “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” was apparently first slotted for the sketchiest of Bowie’s mid-Seventies plans: a Ziggy Stardust musical intended for the stage or TV. Talking to William S. Burroughs two months before this recording, Bowie said this musical would be a cut-up performance. He’d write some 40 scenes and then “shuffle [them] around in a hat the afternoon of the performance and just perform it as the scenes come out…it would change every night.”

A precursor of “We Are the Champions” and other arena standards, “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” is made of “rock spiritual” timber—a “Lean On Me”/”Let It Be”-esque piano intro, a Garson organ hymn and a Bowie vocal that takes predictable flight: low and confined in the first verse, swoops up an octave for the second, capping it off with roared refrains and scats (“I’m in tears...I’m in tears”). In the rehearsal takes, you can hear Bowie plotting this course out (“the next time it comes around it keeps straight, like a 4/4 thing…that’s right, the high verse: AH la la la lah-dah!”)

What saves the song from sentimentality is its acerbic take on the relations of audience and actor (“they sold us for the likes of you”). “There are two stars in rock ‘n’ roll—me and the audience,” Bowie had said at one of the last Ziggy Stardust concerts in Newcastle, irritated by bouncers hitting some kids. “And if these stewards don’t stop…the stars are going to make this place into a matchbox.” If it’s meant to be the voice of Ziggy, it’s a Ziggy tartly explaining why he broke up the band and was renting a room somewhere in America to get away from his fans (“I’ve found a door that lets me out!”).

Asked in summer 1974 whether his fans considered him as a leader, Bowie said that “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” was his response: “you’re doing it to me. Stop it.” Eventually-scrapped lyrics in the rehearsal takes show how he was playing with this idea: “I would take invaders into hand/ tens of millions fail to understand.”

He could be frustrated by fans who got stuck on a persona he’d discarded. They were content to “adopt the stance of a character that didn’t exist at all, and a life-style that hadn’t been created…they created their own life-style for Ziggy,” he later said, baffled that anyone had taken him seriously. On stage in 1974, he used performances of “Rock ‘n’ Roll With Me” to have gnomic dialogues with his crowds. In Boston, he broke off midway through it to ramble “this one is very much for you, this song…are you people? I’m people.” (“It’s about me and singing,” he said during another performance.) On the Diamond Dogs cut, he gave the last word to his lead guitar.

The rehearsal takes have a lightness and a dedication to them, the latter especially in Bowie’s singing—after being in a fog, he was seeing the way out. Diamond Dogs was a defiant album: the album after Ziggy and the Spiders died, the one that showed that Bowie could stand on his own without a Ronson or Visconti (though the latter helped with mixing it), the one he made after Sonia Orwell turned him down for Nineteen Eighty Four; the last album that he cut (mostly) in England. It was, in many ways, his first true solo album, and it always meant a great deal to him. Now, until the YouTube links dry up, you can hear Bowie singing part of it into being.


No Plan

March 23, 2020

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No Plan (Bowie).
No Plan (Bowie, video, 2017).
No Plan (Sophia Anne Caruso, Lazarus, 2015).
No Plan (Caruso, Lazarus cast recording, 2016).

When he dies, his spirit rises a meter. No music, but there’s sound. Nowhere, but Second Avenue just out of sight. The pieces of his soul—memories, loves and hates, dreams, idle ambitions, all his arable and barren selves—hold together but may soon drift apart. There’s no recognizable street plan anymore. North could now be west, Broadway could cross Avenue D. “This is no place,” the spirit says. “But here I am.” It steps aside into the not-quite-yet.

“No Plan” (called “Wistful (This Is Not Quite Yet)” in one Bowie draft of a Blackstar LP sequence) was always intended for Lazarus, Donny McCaslin believed. And Enda Walsh, the play’s co-author, said Bowie had asked him if Walsh had any lyrical ideas for the song. The most “Broadway” of the Blackstar-era pieces, its melody’s intervals are a bit suggestive of the leaps in Leonard Bernstein’s “Maria” or “Something’s Coming.”

It’s unknown if Bowie originally had a woman’s voice in mind for the song, but by the time Lazarus was cast in summer 2015, he wanted a young female singer for it. He found her in the then-fourteen-year-old Sophia Anne Caruso, who once described “No Plan” as “a new song by David Bowie just for my character.” Bowie sent her a card on Lazarus’ opening night to say how much he appreciated her interpretations of his songs (in an act worthy of great karmic retribution, someone stole the card afterward).

In Lazarus, “No Plan” is one of the spotlight songs for Caruso’s character, Marley, known mostly in the play as The Girl, a not-quite-dead murder victim who becomes the guardian angel of the exiled alien Thomas Jerome Newton. Singing “No Plan” is how she introduces herself, stating the terms of her confinement while Newton pours himself another drink.

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Bowie’s recorded version of “No Plan” predates Lazarus by nearly a year—it was among the earliest tracks that he and the McCaslin Quartet cut in January 2015, in the first batch of the Blackstar sessions.

McCaslin recalled to Mojo of Bowie’s “No Plan” “that there was more tinkering with the instrumentation than we did with the others, and more takes… It’s a bit more like a show tune. In fact the second time we approached it, he sent a new demo. First time was David and guitar. This one had acoustic piano [Henry Hey] and a female singer, and she had a dramatic musical theater approach.” McCaslin was central to Bowie’s arrangement, doing multiple overdubs: “I play a bunch of flutes and some clarinet and low-end tenor sax stuff,” he said. Also key is Mark Guiliana, whose drum pattern is a ribbon of tension in the verses—the Lazarus recording sounds weightless by comparison.

(Given the timing (early 2015), the demo singer couldn’t have been Caruso, who was cast the following summer—presumably it was someone with whom Hey worked. McCaslin also recalled the band remaking “No Plan” in the last Blackstar sessions of March 2015, though Nicholas Pegg has that the released “No Plan” was mostly tracked in the January 2015 sessions, including Bowie’s full vocals. Perhaps there was a March retake that wound up being discarded? Or maybe McCaslin was recalling the flute and sax overdubs he did in that period—Ben Monder’s guitar was recorded then as well.)

Sparse in its harmonic structure—the verses often hold on a B-flat major seventh chord, with a few feints, like a move to F# (“I’m lost” “nowhere now”); the refrains move to E-flat minor, now with shifts to F major (“without a plan” “here I am”)—“No Plan” is also subtly clever in its construction, having a five-bar verse that Bowie later extends. As McCaslin said, “he was playing with form, dropping this unusual five-bar phrase, then next time you come round to it, it’s a seven-bar phrase. And this diminished triad he inverts.”

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Bowie’s “No Plan” first appeared as a bonus track on the Lazarus cast recording, then was issued as the title track of the last “new” Bowie EP, on his birthday in January 2017.

Tom Hingston shot a video, in which that deathless YouTube artifact, the “lyric video,” is eerie and moving. Where the “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” videos depict the fall and death of “David Bowie,” “No Plan” is Bowie beyond the veil, turning up for a few minutes in odd corners of the city, an electrical ghost.

“The words of the song do play a central part, of course, but it’s as much about the surrounding situation and setting,” Hingston told Jenny Brewer in 2017. “There is a theme of disembodiment within the track and this sense of occupying another space, which is not of this time, indeed in places the song itself is out of time. So I wanted to create a situation which felt familiar, yet somehow out of place; a recognisable street setting, with its day-to-day rhythms and an otherworldly scene playing out within it.”

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There’s a heap of Bowie references—Newton Electrical, on Foxgrove Road (where Bowie lived in 1969), with its Man Who Fell to Earth-esque rows of televisions with their blue, blue, electric blue screens. (The actual location is a launderette in Brockley.) The first person drawn to the TV screens looks a bit like Leon Blank, from 1. Outside, and wears red shoes; screens show bluebirds and rockets.

Hingston said he also wanted to honor Lazarus, recalling an interview in which Walsh described his and Bowie’s structural idea for the play as “the notion of a stained glass window and how this could be used as a visual metaphor to tell a series of stories through one central image,” Hingston said in 2017. “I thought that was such a lovely point of reference. For me, the shop window and the screens form a device which allows the story to play out, yet viewed through a somewhat fractured lens.”

It was an inspired way to depict the unreality of the days after Bowie’s death in January 2016, the collective disbelief that he was gone, the common response to gather in groups and play his music. That in mourning there could be a new community. From the perspective of March 2020, that’s something else that’s been taken from us now.

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Bowie starts “No Plan” in what Tony Visconti, referring to how Bowie sang “Where Are We Now?,” described as the “fragile” Bowie voice. A weary-sounding voice without authority, one grappling its way into the melody and then, at once, surging with hidden strengths. It’s among the most beautiful of Bowie’s final vocals. His last phrase—a sinking “not…quite…yet,” each note held for a bar (or two, for the last), with the consonance of the “t”s as endstops—is answered by a McCaslin solo that sounds as if a sleeper is considering facing the day and then drifts off again, in bliss.

As Bowie’s humbled, yearning take on “No Plan” was cut before Caruso’s wide-eyed one, listening to the tracks in their recording order reverses the progression of Toy, where Bowie had remade his earliest songs as an older man, imposing the costs of age upon youth. It’s a different degree of tragedy here—Bowie’s “No Plan” assesses a full life at its end, while Caruso’s mourns one that was barely allowed to begin.

Recorded: (backing tracks, vocals) 7, 10 January 2015, Magic Shop; (overdubs, retake?) ca. March-April 2015. Bowie: lead and backing vocal, guitar?; McCaslin: tenor saxophone, clarinet, alto flute, C flute; Ben Monder: guitar; Jason Lindner: keyboards and synthesizers; Tim Lefebvre: bass; Mark Guiliana: drums. Produced: Bowie, Visconti; engineered: Kevin Killen, Visconti.

First release: 21 October 2016, Lazarus: The Original New York Cast.

Top photo: Zara Yaari, “New York, 2015.”


Animal Farm

January 14, 2020

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Animal Farm (demo).

Of the demos included in the Conversation Piece set, most of which were recorded between spring 1968 and summer 1969, “Animal Farm” is among the slightest. It sounds about two-thirds written: over jabbed acoustic guitar chords, Bowie scats through a chorus that’s still in a cloudy state, in which it may well have remained.

What to say about a song that’s barely there in its demo form? Lyrically it’s centered on the idea of some communal “animal farm” whose gates are barred to anyone over 30 years old. The verse has a 43-year-old woman (treated here as high old age) who “drinks the morning papers and reads the tea” and dreams of joining a group of hippies out in the country somewhere. The refrain is, apparently, the voice of the commune rejecting her.

The Kinks’ “Animal Farm” might have sparked Bowie’s title (it would depend on the date of Bowie’s composition, which isn’t known; The Village Green Preservation Society came out in November 1968). Ray Davies is in his usual state of being exhausted and terrified by the modern world and dreams of going off to live with the pigs and sheep and goats (though he wants his girl to come with him)—it’s a dry run for his even more civilization-cursing “Apeman” two years later. There was also the novel Logan’s Run, published in 1967, set in a future Earth where the maximum age is 21 (the film adaptation raised the limit to 30), upon which you commit suicide in the Sleepshop, get dispatched by a Sandman such as the title character, or try to escape to Sanctuary.

But this is all looking too far afield. The key ancestor is Bowie’s “There Is a Happy Land,” a song about the secret factions and legends of childhood, which adults can no longer access. “There is a happy land where only children live/ You’ve had your chance and now the doors are closed sir, Mr. Grownup. Go away sir.” In his songs of the late Sixties and early Seventies, Bowie regarded the counterculture as a desperate and ultimately-doomed extension of childhood.

Recorded: ca. late spring-autumn 1968 (possibly winter-early spring 1969), likely either 39 Manchester Street or 22 Clareville Grove, London. David Bowie: lead vocal, acoustic guitar. First release: 15 November 2019, Conversation Piece.

Top: John Olson: “The Family of Mystic Arts Commune, Sunny Valley, Oregon,” 1969. (LIFE, “The Commune Comes to America,” 18 July 1969).

 


(Still Not) The Last Xmas

December 21, 2019

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Do They Know It’s Christmas? (Live Aid, 1985).
Bowie’s 2013 Christmas “Elvis” Message.
Peace on Earth/The Little Drummer Boy.
Peter and the Wolf.
The Snowman.
Feed the World.

Ace predictions in my past year-end posts:

This project’s final year could be 2014—we’ll see how it goes. Xmas post, 2013.

But barring another Bowie album in 2015, this is the last Christmas post of the blog’s “primary” life. Xmas post, 2014.

2016 should bring…the rollout of a new music blog in the spring (ish). Xmas post, 2015 (for the life of me, I don’t remember what this idea was—it obviously didn’t happen).

It’s an established annual tradition that this blog will run a Christmas post and say, “well, this could be the last Xmas post, as we’re almost done.” And then Bowie would put out some new thing. But this time, I am very nearly sure, is the end. I can’t imagine I won’t get through the last nine songs before Dec. 2017.  Xmas post, 2016.

I’m assuming there’ll be a Tin Machine and/or a “Black Tie-to-whenever” box set in the new year. Xmas post, 2018.

At this point, you should really be betting against me, hard. So here, I’ll try to work some reverse magic: I expect next year that absolutely nothing of remote interest will be released by the Bowie estate. See you in December 2020!

I’d like to wish everyone a very merry Christmas, happy New Year, happy New Decade (or happy New Year Before the Decade Officially Ends on 31 December 2020, for the pedants). All my best, whether you’re a longtime reader or someone who pops in once in a while. The blog will continue, as it has been for some time now, with the occasional new entry on older “lost” songs that are reissued (one will probably be up next month); there’s also my new writing on 64 Quartets and the Patreon.

To everyone who bought Ashes to Ashes this year, thank you; for those who did so and also came to the readings, thank you again. I’m grateful to Bob Stanley, Rob Sheffield, Owen Hatherley and Billy Hough for hosting the readings, and to Rough Trade (NYC and London), McNally Jackson in NYC, and the Anthony Burgess Foundation in Manchester, UK. Thanks to Tariq Goddard and Repeater Books. Two friends who were essential to the writing of Ashes to Ashes have books of their own being released next year: keep an eye out for Rahawa Haile‘s In Open Country and Mairead Case‘s Tiny.

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A Bonus: Chapter End (Last). The Best of Bowie: the 2010s

My top 10 favorite songs of David Bowie’s last decade.

1. ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore (LP version). The Next Day had shown that Bowie was back; “‘Tis a Pity,” in its wild solo demo or its Blackstar take, showed that he wanted to go somewhere else. One of the loopiest songs that he ever wrote: you can find a world within it, then another one lurking within that. The studio version has a slight edge thanks to Donny McCaslin’s career-topper of a performance and Bowie sounding as if he was back in the Marquee in London, cheering from a crowd of Mods.

2. Blackstar. A counterpart to “Station to Station,” at the other end of the line. A great fake-out of a song, ominous and lovely and strange, shot through with jokes: “I’m the Great I Am” invokes both the Book of Exodus and Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Henry VIII, I Am.” It’s a joy that Bowie, at age 68, could sit down and say, “well, I suppose I need an epic,” then whisk one together like an omelet.

3. Love Is Lost. The highlight of The Next Day: love as being under house arrest. The harmonies!

4. Dollar Days. Raging against the dying of the light, then sitting down to watch the sunset.

5. Where Are We Now? It was, in retrospect, the perfect way, the only way, for him to return. His last season begins with a notice that it’s going to end, sooner than you think. How Bowie sings “you never knew that, that I could do that,” in a way that suggests he’d never thought he could, either.

6. I Can’t Give Everything Away. As with all the Blackstar tracks, it’s as funny as it’s haunting—there’s a wonderful petulance in the title phrase, along with a deep sadness. The last, inevitably-disappointing box set that the estate releases should have this as its title, with a photograph of the sealed Bowie vault on the cover. It’s Bowie’s “Into the Mystic“—a fading away, a dissolution into sound.

7. Sue (Maria Schneider version). Bowie’s most essential collaboration since the Reeves Gabrels era is one in which he began with fewer chips on the table—the eternal dilettante meets a brilliant composer and arranger with a lifetime steeped in jazz, a genre Bowie would only dabble in. It wound up as a partnership of equals: Bowie’s distinctive presence is central to the track but he’s not allowed to dominate it.

8. The Next Day. Loud, full of piss and vinegar, clipped, blown out—the sound of his early 2000s “rock” style being set afire. An unreconciled life.

9. No Plan. Nothing has changed, everything has changed.

10. Like a Rocket Man. I came to love this throwaway track while writing the last chapter of the book. Utterly shameless steals from all over the place, a possible last dig at Elton John, rewriting the “coke magus Bowie” years as a cartoon serial. It has one of his last great lines buried in it: “Now I wish today that yesterday was just tomorrow.” RIP, DB.

Here’s to the new years.


The Reverend Raymond Brown (Attends the Garden Fête on Thatchwick Green)

December 2, 2019

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The Reverend Raymond Brown (Attends the Garden Fête on Thatchwick Green).

The release of the five-disc Conversation Piece hammers shut the year of “Sixties Bowie Redux.” The total, in terms of tracks unreleased until now: some 30 home demos, recorded between the autumns of 1967 and 1969.

At last in one place (expect to see more Spying Through a Keyhole and Clareville Grove sets, over-optimistically priced, in used record stores), these demos make a decent pile and give a sharper picture of Bowie’s work life in the late Sixties. How sharp, though? Is it really worth one’s time to sit through these rough drafts, these murky tapes of old songs, many of which didn’t make the cut for Bowie at the time? (You can hear his laugh: “ah yes, a real treasure trove you’ve got for 80 quid.”)

Well, of course I’m interested. And the devoted fan—I’ll define this as someone who’s voluntarily listened to a Tin Machine bootleg—may find some of it fascinating. The “average” fan, whoever they may be? I’m not sure what they’ll make of it, if they’ll even hear it.

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The collected demos* do a couple of things. They further document how the late Sixties were a proving ground for Bowie as a songwriter—his frustrations about lacking a record contract strengthened him as a composer; his songs develop in craft and form. “Space Oddity,” included here in what appears to be every demo ever made of it, no longer sounds like a sudden leap forward but more the culmination of years spent sitting at a reel-to-reel in his manager’s flat or in various bedsits and rented rooms.**

We also have a smoother transition between “psychedelic Mod” suburban Bowie and hippie Arts Lab Bowie of 1969. The Conversation Piece “demo” disc sequence opens with the set’s earliest recordings, in terms of composition: “April’s Tooth of Gold,” “Mother Grey,” “In the Heat of the Morning” and “When I’m Five” (the former two were copyrighted in December 1967; the latter two had studio versions cut in March 1968).

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“The Reverend Raymond Brown (Attends the Garden Fête on Thatchwick Green)” (hereafter referred to, for sanity’s sake, as “Rev. Brown”) almost certainly hails from the same compositional period—late 1967 through the first months of 1968. Its earliest appearance is as a title in Kenneth Pitt’s 1985 memoir, where it appears in a list of prospective songs to be recorded for Bowie’s second (and never-recorded) Deram album.

It makes sense: “Rev. Brown” isn’t far removed from Bowie’s Deram debut, in terms of subject matter (another jaundiced look at suburban England) and song structure—there’s still a lot of Ray Davies being processed, along with a newer influence, Syd Barrett, while the outro is all but Bowie saying on tape “and then it ends like a Who track.”

Its lyric is a film sketch. Quick shots of various supporting characters (a nameless milkman and magistrate; Mrs. MacGoony and Grouse and “naughty Fitzwilliam”) build to (in the four-bar refrains) the introduction of the title character: Rev. Raymond Brown, shown leading the band at a village fete, “noting down sin” with a pencil, and guiltily lusting after the “beauty of Thatchwick.” Bowie’s word-choked bridges have similar phrasings as those in “When I’m Five”—here done to imitate the chatter of a “women’s guild” who compare their hats and gossip about a local girl getting pregnant (Sally, perhaps the future/former wife of Uncle Arthur).

Clever but shallow, “Rev. Brown” is apparently among Bowie’s last attempts to do an “Angry Young Man”-type short story in music, as he had done repeatedly on his 1967 album. It feels compromised in tone, as if he was already writing with Peter Noone in mind to sing it—it’s far less weird than the likes of “She’s Got Medals” or “Little Bombardier” or “Please Mr. Gravedigger.” That said, all we have is a rough sketch—perhaps “Rev. Brown” could’ve been transformed in the studio, getting brass or woodwind accompaniment for the refrains.

What I do find a hoot is that the verse phrasings, especially at 1:20 (the introduction of the Beauty of Thatchwick, who seems written for Julie Christie or Jane Asher to play), appear again in Bowie’s work—I hear them in “Little Wonder,” thirty years later. As Earthling is one of Bowie’s “return to Britain” records, so Rev. Raymond Brown, “musical priest” and would-be dirty old man, gets dug up as an ancestor to Blur’s Tracy Jacks and Ernold Same. Whether for “Little Wonder” Bowie went back to his Sixties demos or recalled some traces of a long-abandoned song is something we’ll never know.

Recorded: ca. late autumn 1967-March 1968, (most likely) Kenneth Pitt’s apartment at 39 Manchester Street, London. David Bowie: lead and backing vocal, guitars, bass, percussion. First release: 15 November 2019, Conversation Piece.

Self-Promotional Paragraph. 1) Ashes to Ashes and Rebel Rebel are here for your Christmas shopping needs. They make great stocking stuffers—well, not in Ashes‘ case, as its weight would likely bring down the stocking. Put that one in a shoebox or something. 2) Those who have joined the Patreon got to read this entry early and are delighted, I’m told. They also get to read early versions of the 64 Quartets essays, my new series on the films of Howard Hawks, and some Bowie-related exclusives. Thanks to all; happy December! End of Self-Promotional Paragraph.

* Collected but far from complete. Still unreleased are “Social Kind of Girl” and “Everything Is You,” “Silver Tree Top School for Boys,” “C’est la Vie,” etc. “Tiny Tim” remains a title. The absence of the 1968 demo of Bowie’s rock opera Ernie Johnson is no surprise—it’s possible the estate no longer owns the tape (one copy was auctioned in the Nineties) and EJ is my guess as to one of the things DB never wanted to become public.

** Despite the track on Conversation Piece sounding like a third-generation cassette dub, “Rev. Brown” appears to have been made on a sophisticated, costly set-up for a struggling musician in 1967. The “Rev. Brown” demo—done to copyright the song, distribute it for potential cover versions and, possibly, as a blueprint for Tony Visconti (who was supposed to produce Bowie Deram 2)—has a complete bassline, tambourine and “drum” track, lead and harmony vocals and possibly two guitar tracks. It’s surprisingly intricate for the period. Maybe Kenneth Pitt got the set-up for a short-term period by a vendor, and Bowie no longer had regular access to it once he moved in with Hermione Farthingale. Later DB Sixties demos sound more like “hit ‘record’ and hope the mike picks it all up.”

Top: Batman (Adam West) in Kennington, May 1967; “St John Vianney Garden Fete, 1967” (Hartlepool Museum Service).


The Gift of Sound + Vision

September 25, 2019

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The first box sets that I bought, when I was 17 years old, were Product, a Buzzcocks collection by Restless Retro, and Rykodisc’s Sound + Vision. I got them in the autumn of 1989, and on cassette—not an ideal medium for a box set—because I didn’t own a CD player then.

Sound + Vision, released 30 years ago today, remains the essential Bowie career compilation, despite said career being confined to a mere 11 years on it. Its recent challenger is Nothing Has Changed, whose span is far greater but whose “backwards” sequencing feels more gimmicky with each year. Also Nothing Has Changed, er, changed nothing in how Bowie was perceived—issued, like a set of bonus discs, in the midst of his grand comeback of the mid-2010s, it already seemed forgotten by the time of his death.

By contrast, Sound + Vision was intended as a major reputational reboot. Like Neil Young’s Decade and Bob Dylan’s Biograph (the latter an obvious, and admitted, influence on the Bowie set), it imposed a narrative upon a set of disparate tracks—outtakes, studio warhorses, live performances, demos. It built David Bowie a past, if one cluttered like a Victorian house, and plucked him out of the Eighties just as the decade expired. Sound + Vision (which closes in 1980) was a set of knight’s moves, sending him back across the board in leaps. (That said, S+V used Bowie’s “Serious Moonlight” 1983 tour setlists as one guide as to what to include—note how many of those songs appear on it.)

Jeff Rougvie, who put together the set for Ryko in 1988-1989, has gone into great detail on his blog as to how S+V came together (he has a book about Ryko coming out next year, too). The timing was ideal: much of Bowie’s RCA work was out of print, and had scarcely been available on CD before then, and most previous Bowie compilations had been obvious label cash-grabs. The success of Biograph, Clapton’s Crossroads and the Springsteen Live 1975-1985 sets had shown there was a market for high-end, ambitious rock retrospectives, and this was certainly one of them—a custom-made plastic silkscreen cover lid, a Kurt Loder-penned booklet, and a then-cutting-edge (and now unplayable) CDV bonus disc.

Rougvie is an American, Ryko was an American indie label, and Sound + Vision was an American take on a British artist. The track choices aren’t those of a fan who saw Bowie at the Hammersmith Odeon or “Starman” on Top of the Pops. They’re to fill in the rough sketch that the typical American fan had of Bowie’s career—S+V was an extended answer piece to the 1976 ChangesOneBowie, Bowie’s biggest US seller after Ziggy Stardust and the template of Classic Rock radio Bowie—“Space Oddity,” “Changes,” some Ziggy, “Jean Genie,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Young Americans,” “Fame,” “Golden Years,” done.

Another theme of Sound + Vision was: Look, Really, This Guy Used to Be Cool. The aim of its third disc, which spanned from Low to Scary Monsters, was to show America what it had missed by not buying those albums when they were released, Rougvie said. It also made a hipper, arty contrast to the waning Glass Spider, “Dancing in the Street,” and Jareth era. The inclusion of Bowie’s cover of Tom Verlaine’s “Kingdom Come,” an odd pick to represent Scary Monsters, was in part because Rougvie wanted to show Bowie’s ties to the New York punk scene, which was becoming mythologized by the end of the Eighties.

So let’s go back to high-school me, listening to S+V for the first time in 1989. Side One of the first tape starts with the “Mercury demo” of “Space Oddity.” The compilation begins at Bowie’s bedside as he’s strumming together the song that will introduce him to the world (Rougvie: “Bowie delivered [the “SO” demo] separately from the rest of the vault, although he left me to assembling the track list & sequence. He didn’t specify it as the first track, but later confirmed he’d hoped we’d start with it”). Then comes the B-side of “Space Oddity,” “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud”; the Marc Bolan “Prettiest Star” (a single unreleased in the US; American fans, if they knew the song at all, knew it as its Aladdin Sane remake), and the outtake “London Bye Ta-Ta,” lone representative of Bowie’s Deram-era Sixties (it was originally cut in 1968), with Bowie sounding like a pilled-up cabaret act.

In four tracks, you get Bowie’s deep past, if its sources are greatly in shadow: Anthony Newley, John Hutchinson, the Arts Lab, Chimi Rinpoche, Bolan, Lindsay Kemp. Then—bang—comes the Seventies: “Black Country Rock” (huh? is he covering Zeppelin?), “Man Who Sold the World” (why have I never heard this on the radio?) and “Bewlay Brothers” (wait, what?) And the side ends with “Changes.” (Rougvie: “I felt like the newbies needed familiarity after a lot of material the casual fan would only be peripherally familiar with, if at all. Plus, it’s fucking “Changes.”)

Finishing this side, I sat for a moment, then rewound to the start again. It was a few days until I got to Side Two, a history of Bowie’s glam years in jump cuts. Ziggy Stardust is represented solely by “Moonage Daydream” and the “Round & Round” outtake/B-side; Aladdin Sane via “Panic in Detroit” and “Drive-In Saturday” (another UK hit/ US relative obscurity). It ends with Ziggy dying on stage at the Hammersmith in 1973.

You can, of course, point out everything that’s missing—and there’s a lot! Where’s “Queen Bitch?” “Quicksand?” “Life on Mars?” “Lady Stardust?” But the object of the box set wasn’t to be a greatest hits compilation (that would come in 1990) and Ryko didn’t want fans to buy the same outtakes twice—thus much of the cream of the unreleased tracks (“Some Are,” “Who Can I Be Now?” “Sweet Head,” the “Quicksand” demo, “Alternative Candidate,” etc.) was held in reserve for individual album reissues.

The second disc/tape was the weakest of the set, having to carry the still-basically-Ziggy Bowie over to Thin White Duke DB in 15 tracks. The Pin Ups selections seem chosen by lot, the David Live ones don’t represent that tour well, although ending on “Wild Is the Wind” makes thematic sense as a “European” transition piece to the Berlin years.

All compilations tell a story, if inadvertent ones; S+V‘s was deliberate. It gave order to decisions Bowie had made as whims, as instinctual bobs and weaves, of knowing when a style was played out and darting into another one; moves based upon little more than meeting a rhythm guitarist in New York, or dating an R&B singer, or agreeing to spend a summer making a movie in New Mexico. And by arranging these pieces in a (relatively) straight line, S+V brought out underlying patterns, the tics and oddities and continuities that Bowie brought to all his work, despite how much he felt the urge to move on, to discard his pasts. S+V showed him as the secret traditionalist he always was.

In 2003, EMI issued an “updated” four-disc S+V without Rougvie’s (or, apparently, much of Bowie’s) input. While some new selections were made in the spirit of the original—“Ricochet” is there to represent Let’s Dance—it was more hits-oriented. That said, it remains the only Bowie compilation to fully incorporate Tin Machine, including three tracks from Tin Machine II (and well-chosen picks at that—“Amlapura,” “Shopping for Girls” and “Goodbye Mr. Ed.”) For label reasons, it ends abruptly on Buddha of Suburbia, with an Earthling-era coda.

It had none of the impact of the original compilation (which had sold over 200,000 copies in under a year). Admittedly I wasn’t paying much attention to Bowie at this time, but I’ve no recollection that the updated S+V even existed—I found out about it years later. By 2003, no box set could’ve have rebooted David Bowie, a genial, regularly-touring, “regular guy” legacy rock act whose new songs weren’t heard on US radio. As it turned out, the way to refresh his public self would be to retire it for a decade.

Should the estate ever release Sound + Vision: The Remix, an eight-disc set that ends with the Blackstar outtake “Blaze,” what would it accomplish? The market is awash with Bowie retrospectives and the Bowie Story is canonical enough that there are children’s books about his life. Sound + Vision had made a workable past for David Bowie to use, and long ago it became part of it.


Who Knows Where the Time Goes?

July 29, 2019

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Liza Jane (first blog entry, 29 July 2009).

Forgive an indulgent entry. Ten years ago today, I wrote the first post on this blog (linked above). It was the work of a day or so: looking through some Bowie books, digging a tiny bit into the origin of the song “Liza Jane,” and being delighted to find a clip on YouTube of Bowie singing it live in 2004. (As Toy had yet to be bootlegged, Bowie’s 2000 studio remake of “Liza Jane” was still a mystery—I added that link some years later.)

A decade can feel like no time at all, until it does. When I published the “Liza Jane” entry that July evening, I didn’t put up a link on Twitter (I wasn’t on then) nor on Facebook (still in its “Brian from grade school! how are you?” sunny phase). YouTube was in its childhood: in fall 2009, I found few of Bowie’s Sixties tracks there. Spotify had barely started—I knew no one who used it yet. On occasion, I’d link to this sort-of RealPlayer set of Sixties Bowie tracks that I found on an Italian fan website.

I first made note of my new blog a week later on the other blog that I ran. So it’s quite likely that not a single person read the “Liza Jane” post on the day it came out! An auspicious beginning.

It helped that the first Bowie song to write about was a cover, and a cover of an old American song at that, as I’d written about a lot of old American songs in the 2000s. Plus information about the origins of “Liza Jane” was scant in many Bowie references at the time: I thought “well, here’s something I can offer.” As you can see from the original entry, I didn’t offer much. The Rebel Rebel version of the “Liza Jane” entry went far more into the song’s murky life. (Also, there’s a documentary about the song in the works.)

A month earlier, I was at the used record store Turn It Up! in Northampton (still standing, unlike a lot of record stores from 2009) and bought Bowie’s Early On and The Deram Anthology, which cemented the idea of doing a song-by-song thing on him. What were my other resources then? Nicholas Pegg’s Complete David Bowie, biographies by David Buckley, Christopher Sandford, the Gilmans, and George Tremlett, and a battered copy of Kevin Cann’s out-of-print Chronology. Liner notes. Bowie Wonderworld, the Illustrated DB Guide and Teenage Wildlife. That was about it. (Seeing myself quoted in a subsequent edition of Pegg’s guide was strange—felt like I’d time traveled and monkeyed with something.)

The blog started in a dry patch, as 2009 was one of the blank years of Bowie’s public life. He was rarely seen and wasn’t working on music (barring home demos, perhaps). The big Bowie news, when I began this site, was the 40th anniversary of “Space Oddity” and a digital release that let buyers isolate its tracks; upcoming multi-disc reissues of David Bowie and Station To Station, of VH1 Storytellers on CD/DVD and Labyrinth on Blu-Ray; “Cat People” being used in the new Tarantino movie.

So, much like now—an age of Bowie reissues, reprints, commemorations, anniversaries. The difference, of course, was that he was still here then, watching TV, traveling, escaping from being David Bowie for a little while.

As the 2010s, which will always be the “Bowie decade” for me, are almost over, so is the long autumn of this blog. Still, wintertime isn’t all bad. Pushing Ahead of the Dame will still be around. I’ll look back on various Bowie songs or albums or compilations, and cover whatever bits and bobs of his past turn up (there are a couple more Looking Through a Keyhole demos to deal with, for instance). If we have only Bowie’s past to consider now, it’s a rich past, one full of secrets and surprises—we could only be at the start of it, should the estate do a full archival series one day.

Whenever you discovered this site, I hope it answered a question you had about a song, or turned you on to some DB obscurity, or just distracted you from a bad work day. Thanks for stopping by.

My future is 64 Quartets; criticism pieces you can find via the Patreon; other articles here and there. Down the road, another book or two, I hope. See you soon.


Space Oddity At Half-Century

July 11, 2019

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Space Oddity (earliest demos, ca. December 1968-January 1969).
Space Oddity (“Clareville Grove” demo, ca. late January 1969).
Space Oddity (Love You Till Tuesday, full-band version, February 1969).
Space Oddity (“Mercury demo”).
Space Oddity (single).
Space Oddity (Hits à Gogo, 1969).
Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola.
Space Oddity (Ivor Novello Awards, 1970).
Space Oddity (live, 1971).
Space Oddity (live, 1972).
Space Oddity (BBC, 1972).
Space Oddity (live, Hammersmith Odeon, 1973).
Space Oddity (“1980 Floor Show,” 1973).
Space Oddity (live, 1974).
Space Oddity (1979 remake).
Space Oddity (live, 1983).
Space Oddity (live, 1990).
Space Oddity (50th Birthday concert, 1997).
Space Oddity (Tibet House Benefit Concert, February 2002, w/ the Scorchio and Kronos Quartets, Adam Yauch & Philip Glass.)
Space Oddity (last live performance, 5 July 2002).
Space Oddity (a last snippet, March 2004.)

It was the beginning: Bowie’s first single for Philips/Mercury, his first British Top 5 hit, his first American Top 20 hit and, some years later, his first British #1. “Space Oddity” led off the album it titled; it leads off Bowie compilations and retrospectives. When he died, some television tributes led off with it; that night, they sang it in the streets.

An odd beginning, though. Its status as the first “classic” Bowie song came circuitously. Though it was a novelty single with a sell-by date (the July 1969 moon landing), “Space Oddity” didn’t chart until months after the moonshot and its highest chartings came in the mid-Seventies. Some in the Bowie camp thought it was a mistake at the time—his friend Tony Visconti refused to produce the single, considering it cheap, a publicity stunt (“it’s not a David Bowie record, it’s ‘Ernie the Milkman’,” he later said). Visconti wasn’t wrong. In hock to the great Bee Gees’ death bubblegum hits “New York Mining Disaster 1941” and “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” (Major Tom to Ground Control: in the event of something happening to me; Ground Control to Major Tom: for once in your life you’re alone), “Space Oddity” is a gimmicky folk song clad in extravagant garb.

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In December 1968, Bowie’s manager Kenneth Pitt funded the production of Love You Till Tuesday, a collection of promotional videos. He hoped to revive Bowie’s moribund career, with LYTT serving as a visual resume for film and stage producers, and possibly to be sold to a television network (it wasn’t released until 1984). While there were films shot for David Bowie tracks, Deram outtakes, a mime piece, and a Feathers song, LYTT lacked anything fresh, so Pitt asked Bowie to come up with “another strong song.”

It’s unknown when Bowie first got the idea for a “spaceman” song, but an almost certain starting point was May 1968, when Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey opened in London. The film played there for months, mostly to the young and the altered. In a typical 2001 screening, Visconti, high from drinking cannabis tea, had to talk down a tripping couple terrified by the “Stargate” sequence, as he wrote in his autobiography. Bowie saw 2001 (allegedly “out of my gourd…very stoned”) several times and was taken by Kubrick and Geoffrey Unsworth’s shots: a star-child looming above the Earth; the dead astronaut Frank Poole floating off into space; a man in space talking to his daughter on Earth via video-phone.

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Like 2001, much of postwar SF had offered that humanity’s ventures into space would drive it mad or transfigure it in some way. In Gordon Walter’s “No Guarantee,” an astronaut violently hallucinates while talking to Ground Control. An astronaut in Terry Pratchett’s “The Night Dweller” realizes “we were in a void with nothing below us…it was cold and empty and hostile.”

And in Ray Bradbury’s “No Particular Night or Morning,” an astronaut hurls himself into the void:

Clemens blinked through the immense glass port, where there was a blur of stars and distant blackness. “He’s out there now?”

“Yes. A million miles behind us. We’d never find him. First time I knew he was outside the ship was when his helmet-radio came on on our control-room beam. I heard him talking to himself…Something like “no more space ship now. Never was any. No people. No people in all the universe. Never were any. No planets. No stars…Only space. Only space. Only the gap.”

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Jane Conrad, Barbara Cernan & Leslie Bean celebrate their husbands’ moonlaunch on Apollo 12; 16 November 1969 (Lee Balterman)

Against this stood the American astronauts: ex-athletes and Air Force pilots with pretty, television-ready wives and scads of healthy-looking children. They all seemed to live on the same suburban street. “NASA was vending space,” wrote Norman Mailer, who interviewed the Apollo 11 crew before the moonshot. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, was “a salesman with a clear mild modest soft sell.” But there was something strange in the Apollo astronauts too, something that lay beyond the jokes about astronaut food and golf and the hundreds of tedious tasks they’d perform, as if they were celestial mechanics. For Mailer, an astronaut like Armstrong had “something close to schizophrenia in his lack of reaction to the dangers about him.”

The astronauts had an easy familiarity with death; they were salesmen over an abyss. Major Tom’s disaster (is it a disaster at all?) voiced the collective dread that the moon landing could go horribly wrong, with death or lunar exile (an extended death) shown on live TV. “A song-farce,” Bowie called “Space Oddity” not long after the moonshot. He’d written it as an “antidote to space-fever.” That “the publicity image of a spaceman at work is of an automaton rather than a human being and my Major Tom is nothing but a human being.”

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It’s fitting that Bowie made “Space Oddity” demos while he had a serviceman’s haircut (due to a bit part in The Virgin Soldiers in late 1968)

The man on earth, playing his 12-string acoustic in his room at 22 Clareville Grove in South Kensington, working up a song. After four years in pop music, David Bowie had no record contract and was reduced to a relative handful of folk and mime gigs. In 1968, he’d tried his hand at film parts and musical theater (he unsuccessfully auditioned for Hair), did a cabaret audition, some modeling. Though among his more lucrative jobs of the period was for a TV spot for Luv Ice Cream, his manager kept telling him that work would turn up. So Major Tom is sent into orbit by Establishment figures who monitor him and need him to do his share of media promotion. The song ends with Major Tom ignoring his cues and walking off stage.

Bowie also was writing as the first serious relationship of his life crumbled. He cut the first studio take of “Space Oddity” during his final break with Hermione Farthingale. There was a numbness in the song, a longing to sever ties and drift into the void. As Bowie said of it in summer 1969, “at the end of the song Major Tom is completely emotionless and expresses no view at all about where he’s at…he’s fragmenting.”

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Among the first substantive interviews of Bowie’s professional life, by Mary Finnigan for the International Times (15-21 August 1969).

All of this was swirling in “Space Oddity”—a technocrat American astronaut cracking up, a failed pop singer out in space writing a letter to his lost girlfriend—but there were pantomime qualities in the song as well. The hand-wringing “she KNOWS!” cried by Ground Control when Major Tom tells his wife he loves her; the stage-Italian pronunciation of “most-a pe-cuil-ee-ah way.”

As with “When I’m Five” or “There Is a Happy Land,” it was fundamentally a child’s song, one they could perform via walkie-talkies. Using simple rhymes (“can you hear” jump-cuts to “here am I floating…”), Bowie favored the kid’s word over the bureaucrat’s: it’s “spaceship” instead of “rocket,” “countdown” instead of “ignition sequence.” “Major Tom” was an action hero’s name, another Dan Dare. The Apollo 11 astronauts called their capsule “the cathedral.” But it was a tin can here: you could see the wires it hung from.

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Ground Control fears the worst (Love You Till Tuesday; Thomson, 1969)

In John Hutchinson’s memoir, he recalled first hearing “the bare bones” of “Space Oddity” a week or two before the Love You Till Tuesday filming. This would place its earliest extant demos (as heard on the Spying Through a Keyhole box) around the tail end of 1968 through mid-January 1969. Farthingale said she first heard “Space Oddity” in November 1968 (Bowie also once said that he wrote the lyrics in that month) and there’s an intriguing Feathers setlist from the period with an unknown piece called “Here Am I,” suggesting that its bridge may have been written first.

(There have been dubious co-authorship claims—LYTT’s director Malcolm Thomson once said some of “Space Oddity” was communally written over a few nights when he and his assistant Susie Mercer visited Clareville Grove—“we all produced lines. It was very much a spontaneous thing among a group of people”—and Marc Bolan told Spencer Leigh that he’d written “part” of the song (declining to say which part) and had suggested that Bowie sing it like Robin Gibb.)

What could be the first recording that Bowie ever made of “Space Oddity” is a fragmentary solo demo in which the bridge is all but completed, while the verse melody and the Ground Control/Major Tom dialogue structure are close to being set. The way that Bowie sings the verses reminds me a bit of John Lennon’s verse phrasings on the then-just-released “Bungalow Bill” (“he went out tiger hunting with his el-e-phant and gun”). There are some clunky early lines (“I think my life on earth is nearly through”), and a clearer depiction of what happens to Major Tom—his spaceship goes “off course, directions wrong”— but it’s striking how much of the song is already in place.

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Some “Space Oddity” chords, from Acoustic Guitar, February 2007.

Its chord sequence was the fruit of a year’s dabbling in folk music, with Hutchinson translating some of Bowie’s ideas into proper chord shapes (he was essential to tacking down the bridge, as Hutch contributed the opening Fmaj7 and the quick run of ninth chords (wrongly omitted in the above chord chart: see below).

Bowie had fingered through progressions on his 12-string, following internal voices of his guitar—playing chord changes that sounded right to his ear and that he achieved with easy movements, like converting a F major barre chord (“and I’m”) into F minor (“floating in a”) by lifting a finger. Later compositions like “Quicksand” would share this tactile sense of movement.

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Parallel movements of electric guitar and Stylophone (“Sty.”) in the opening verse

So the chord pairings of the intro (a slow dance of Fmaj7/E and E minor) and the first verse’s alternating C majors and E minors, present a division to be exploited. On the single recording, the guitarist Mick Wayne sounds two harmonics (E and B) while Bowie’s Stylophone drones two whole notes a half-step apart (C and B). Before the first verse starts, Major Tom is already high in space, Ground Control far below him.

The song was full of these resonances, its harmonic language telling half of the story. Take the E7 chord that appears in the second verse (“really made the grade”) to question the prospective key of C major. It was as dramatic a move harmonically as the vocal leap on the post-liftoff  “this is Ground Control to Major Tom” was melodically. Shifting to E7 instead of the expected E minor brightened the song, expanded it outward. Or take the bridge’s “planet earth is blue” section (B-flat major 9/ A minor add9/ G major add9/ F), a folk-style descending progression whose opening chord (Bbmaj9) was a far distance from C major, a move ratifying Major Tom’s choice (or doom) to stay out in space.

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The “liftoff” bars

He’d never written anything on such a scale before. In a touch over five minutes, there was a faded-in intro, a 12-bar solo verse, a “liftoff” sequence, a duet verse, a bridge, a two-bar acoustic guitar break, a six-bar guitar solo, a third verse, another run of bridge, break, and solo, and a “Day in the Life”-style outro to the fade.

In 2002, Bowie said he’d been “keen on…writing in such a way that it would lead me into leading some kind of rock musical…[that’s] probably what I really wanted to do in the late Sixties. I think I wanted to write a new kind of musical, and that’s how I saw my future at the time.” He storyboarded the song, each section setting up the next. The spoken “countdown” backing vocal built suspense in the latter half of the opening verse, leading to a D major chord (“God’s love be with yoooou”) aching to be resolved by the “liftoff” sequence. The acoustic guitar breaks (C-F-G-A-A, Bowie slamming out the last two chords) worked as stage-clearing (they may well have come from the Fifth Dimension’s “Carpet Man”).

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At present, the only surviving video of DB’s 1969 TV appearances to promote “Space Oddity”: the Swiss Hits à Gogo, 3 November 1969 (the dry ice was a leftover from its Halloween show)

I’m always trying to find that special thing in pop music. For me, it started with Space Oddity by David Bowie—it has that semi-tone shift which fascinated me. I played it endlessly to my mum and it made me feel this yearning. It’s a kind of sweetness, and it can turn up in the strangest places.

Roddy Frame, 2002.

“It was a song always intended to be sung by a duo,” Hutchinson wrote of “Space Oddity,” whose initial vocal arrangement evoked another, more successful folk pair—Hutch as Ground Control Simon, Bowie as Major Tom Garfunkel. Hutchinson was the song’s primary voice until midway through the second verse, when Major Tom transmits back at last: Bowie soaring over a seventh for his opening phrase (because it’s a seventh interval rather than an octave, Bowie’s phrase has a yearning, striving quality; it’s a goal not quite reached.)

Hutchinson, having left working with Bowie in the spring, would be a ghost in the single recording, his absence heightening its sense of loss and dislocation. Bowie now sang the opening verse in imitation of his former partner, harmonizing with himself in octaves. (In live performances in 1972-1973, Mick Ronson took over harmonies.)

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A studio recording of “Space Oddity” was cut for Love You Till Tuesday on 2 February 1969, a few days before its tonally bizarre promo film was shot: a half-panto, half-borderline softcore short. Marred by leaden drumming and a wheezing Bowie ocarina solo, the LYTT “Space Oddity” oddly downplayed the Stylophone, which Bowie had started playing around Christmas 1968 and had been key to the song’s development—the Stylophone is central in all but the earliest demo.

A small portable synthesizer with two settings, “normal” and “vibrato,” the Stylophone was played by touching a stylus to its tiny metallic keyboard. Bowie worked out a progression on it for the opening verse, a two-note sequence that he later shifted up an octave (on “papers want to know,” the Stylophone moves between A-flat and G). Heard isolated in the mix, the Stylophone is a futurist police siren. In the single’s outro, while Wayne sends guitar notes into the exosphere, Bowie frantically taps at his little keyboard as if making one last SOS.

Making the Stylophone prominent in the “Space Oddity” mix gave the single a futuristic hook and added to its hokey charm. Although recorded at a top studio at a substantial budget (£493.18), the single had a winning sense of amateurishness. Orchestral instruments would play only secondary roles: the strings’ massed entrance in the liftoff sequence; the spacewalk of darting flute and moaning celli in the bridges; the bow scrapings in the outro, a homage to György Ligeti’s “Atmosphères,” used in 2001. Meanwhile, the two synthesizers, doughty little Stylophone and brooding Mellotron (the latter played by Rick Wakeman and held in reserve until the first bridge), bore much of the song’s dramatic weight. They were its vocal chorus, its other string section.

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A Dudgeon memo right before the “Space Oddity” session, via Kevin Cann’s Any Day Now

Gus Dudgeon, who produced the single, mapped out its recording like a battle plan (much of it was cut on 20 June 1969, but there was an overdub session a few days later). Unable to write music, Dudgeon used colors and squiggly lines to mark where he wanted various instruments to come in, with Paul Buckmaster helpfully translating his scrawls into charts.

With only eight tracks at hand at Trident Studio, Dudgeon had to be economical, which led to such inspired moves as recording Wayne’s Gibson ES-335 on the same track as the Stylophone, furthering the sense that the two instruments were astronaut and home base. Struggling to keep his borrowed Gibson in tune, Wayne cut a take with a flat low E string, “the warped note swamped with reverb,” but Dudgeon liked the sound and told him not to retune. Wayne used any trick he could muster, picking between his guitar’s bridge and tailpiece, using a chrome-plated cigarette lighter as a bottleneck slide for the takeoff sequence, giving a distorted pressure-drop tag to his first solo (he sounded like a bass synthesizer), moving off his fingerboard for the outro. His two solos, for which Bowie asked him to play like Wes Montgomery (“which meant to play octaves”), were a pair of sweeping orbits, the last escaping Earth’s pull.

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Flowers and Cox’s lines in some of the last bars of “Space Oddity”

Herbie Flowers and Terry Cox were the track’s secret movers. Drumming for Pentangle at the time, Cox served the song well—a man with a funkier bent would have struggled with what was basically a pop tone poem. Opening with parade-ground snare, Cox soon develops a pattern to drive the track: for each bar, two sets of kick drum/closed hi-hat eighth notes he punctuates with a pounded snare and crash cymbal. (He subtly shifts to ride cymbal 16ths and high toms for bridges and solos.) In Flowers’ bassline, a tolling root-note fixation in the opening verse warms to a dancing movement in the second, with a descending two-octave “spacewalk” to kick off the bridges.

Asked to ad lib in the outro, the two did a jazz duet, Flowers playing a roaming, chromatic line that peaked on a high A, Cox hissing his ride cymbal and retorting on his toms. (Cox recalled the session as being “loose,” with Bowie and Dudgeon letting players improvise many of their parts.)

Liftoff

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DB performing “Space Oddity” on the Irish “Like Now!,” 13 December 1969 (video likely wiped)

Major Tom isn’t hearing anything. Is he dead, David?

Probably, that’s left unanswered. But it is clear that he really enjoys being on the moon.

Bowie, to the Dutch newspaper Het Parool, 30 August 1969

The world, or at least a small corner of London, first heard “Space Oddity” on 5 July 1969 when it played over the PA system during the Rolling Stones’ Hyde Park concert. While the BBC reportedly played “Space Oddity” at some point during its moon landing coverage two weeks later (it far more favored “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the official soundtrack of space thanks to 2001), the single barely charted upon release and sales quickly tapered off despite Pitt paying a chart-rigger £140 to get the single into Record Retailer.

Here, it seemed, was the maddening last chapter of David Bowie’s career. The song that his label, manager, and friends thought was finally the one, the song he said he felt forced into recording, his big sell-out record, had suffered yet another chart death, performing little better than “Liza Jane.” Then he caught a break.

With a dearth of new releases in September, Philips’ new marketing director set his entire staff to flogging the single. “Space Oddity” rebounded, peaking at #5 in November. (It was the success Bowie might have had in 1967 if Deram had gone in on “Love You Till Tuesday.”) It helped that many “serious” rock acts were abandoning the singles charts, leaving room for “Continental” crooners, sex chansons, cartoons, the occasional reggae masterpiece and a few weird one-offs. “Space Oddity” sounded like nothing else, but it sounded like 1969.

And it kept being called back for encores. It was an American hit in 1973 and two years later RCA reissued it in Britain as a maxi-single. It hit #1 at last.

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He remade it at the end of the Seventies, recording a new version for a New Year’s Eve telecast, Will Kenny Everett Make It To 1980? (he did). Bowie sheared the song to acoustic guitar, piano, bass and drums. The great influence was John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band, particularly “Mother.” Instead of a liftoff sequence, there were now 12 seconds of silence; instead of a spiraling-outward coda, a faded-out snare figure.

“[David] Mallet wanted me to do something for his show and he wanted ‘Space Oddity.’ I agreed as long as I could do it again without all its trappings and do it strictly with three instruments,” Bowie later said. “Having played it with just an acoustic guitar onstage early on, I was always surprised at how powerful it was just as a song, without all the strings and synthesizers.”

“Space Oddity” had ended unresolved, the door of the capsule left open. Bowie’s reduction of the song closed it off: space was empty. Soon afterward, Bowie decided to look up Major Tom to see what had become of him.

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Space Oddity (Langley Schools Music Project, 1976).
Space Oddity (memorial crowd in Brixton, 11 January 2016).
Space Oddity (Chris Hadfield, 2013).
Space Oddity (Kristen Wiig, 2013).
Space Oddity (Flaming Lips, 2016).
Space Oddity (Seu Jorge, 2016).
Space Oddity (Gail Ann Dorsey, 2017).

The record’s one real insight: “Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing I can do”—the idea that near-space exploration is not a frontier but instead the limit of human endeavour, revealing nothing so much as impotence.

Tom Ewing.

Once during the mission I was asked by ground control what I could see. “What do I see?” I replied. “Half a world to the left, half a world to the right, I can see it all. The Earth is so small.”

Vitali Sevastyanov, cosmonaut, Soyuz 9, Soyuz 18.

When I originally wrote about Major Tom, I was a very pragmatic and self-opinionated lad that thought he knew all about the great American dream and where it started and where it should stop. Here we had the great blast of American technological know-how shoving this guy up into space, but once he gets there he’s not quite sure why he’s there. And that’s where I left him.

Bowie, 1980.

Knowing each night…I get that much closer to never singing ‘Ground Control to Major Tom’ again. That gives me some reason for doing it, selfishly.

Bowie, on the “Sound + Vision” tour, 1990.

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“Space Oddity” is a half-century old today. Of course, we’re commemorating a non-event. Few people at the time—perhaps only David Bowie, his friends and manager—were aware of a new single that hit British record shops on Friday, the 11th of July 1969.

In the early Seventies, “Space Oddity” had its uses for him. It fit in his Ziggy Stardust scheme: a late 1972 Mick Rock promo video is Bowie as a bone-tired Ziggy, singing about his fellow lost cosmonaut. (“I really hadn’t much clue why we were doing this, as I had moved on in my mind from the song,” Bowie wrote in 2002.) Its after-hours cabaret 1974 tour version is a man in a phone booth dialing himself. But it was also a silly song that got him a freak hit, and he was wary of being shackled to it. Performing “Space Oddity” on the Ivor Novello Awards in 1970, he already looks a bit chagrined by it. A decade later, he did “Space Oddity” as fan service, with businesslike 1983 tour performances. There was more vigor in his 1990 tour, where “Space Oddity” was the usual set opener. It was the end of the line for the song, he said, so he’d give it a lengthy public burial.

He’d play it three more times. A farewell solo piece at his 1997 birthday concert, where he promised fans he’d keep surprising them. A gorgeous arrangement for Tibet House in February 2002, with a string octet and Adam Yauch on bass (someone else whose death still feels like a break in the world). And a last one-off performance later that summer in Denmark, a gift to his touring band.

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“Space Oddity” was born mournful, and became ever more so over the years. Bowie had linked the Apollo astronauts (who thought they’d be the opening act of a new age of space exploration and turned out to be one-hit-wonders) to the doomed astronauts of science fiction to the lost boys of the imploding counterculture, and had wrapped them up in a playground hymn.

The American space program soon became a series of loops, going nowhere (I wonder sometimes if I am of the last “space” generation, and I was just an infant during the last moon landings). The year 2001 would be remembered not for Jupiter missions but by fanatics destroying New York skyscrapers. In 2013, when we had gone no further into space than when “Space Oddity” first charted, a version sung by the Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, filmed onboard the International Space Station, went viral. It was a video of a man singing in a tin can that many had forgotten was out in space; Hadfield was a project manager with a glorious view from his office windows.

Bowie once said Major Tom was the technocratic American mind coming face to face with the void and blanking out. His song was a moonshot-year prophecy: that humanity would sink back into the world, that we aren’t built for transcendence, that the sky really is the limit. Or as Hadfield sang from space: “planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing left to do.”

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I wrote the first version of this essay in the late autumn of 2009, with an economy in pieces and a restlessness, a potential in the air. I did a revision for Rebel Rebel in the summer of 2014, a time that now feels stuck between stations. Here’s another revision, written in a world that would have appeared surreal even to that half-decade-gone summer. “Space Oddity” shifts with the weather: it can be eerie, “dated,” tragic, yearning, young, time-blighted. It’s a lost future for the present, a past for the future to discard or preserve. Where will it land in ten years’ time? And as its composer said, where are we now?

End Credits

Space Oddity.

Written by David Bowie (Essex Music International/ Onward Music Ltd).

Recorded: (1st “Keyhole” demo) ca. December 1968–mid-January 1969, 22 Clareville Grove, South Kensington, London. Bowie: lead vocal, 12-string acoustic guitar; (2nd “Keyhole” demo, “Clareville Grove” demo) ca. mid-to-late January 1969, 22 Clareville Grove. Bowie: also Stylophone; John Hutchinson: lead and harmony vocals, acoustic guitar; (1st studio take) 2 February 1969, Morgan Studios, 169 High Road, Willesden. Bowie: lead and harmony vocals, 12-string acoustic guitar, ocarina, Stylophone; Hutchinson: acoustic guitar, lead and harmony vocals; Colin Wood: Hammond organ, Mellotron, flute; Dave Clague: bass; Tat Meager: drums. Produced: Jonathan Weston; (“Mercury” demo) ca. early-to-mid March 1969, 22 Clareville Grove. Bowie: lead and harmony vocal, Stylophone; Hutchinson: lead and harmony vocal, acoustic guitar; (single) 20 + ca. 23 June 1969, Trident Studios, 17 St. Anne’s Court, London. Bowie: lead and harmony vocal, Stylophone, 12-string acoustic guitar, handclaps; Mick Wayne: lead guitar; Rick Wakeman: Mellotron; Herbie Flowers: bass; Terry Cox: drums; unknown musicians: piano, organ, 2 flutes, 8 violins, 2 violas, 2 celli, 2 arco basses. Produced: Gus Dudgeon; engineered: Barry Sheffield; arranged: Bowie, Paul Buckmaster; (Italian version, “Ragazzo Solo, Ragazza Sola”) 20 December 1969, Morgan Studios. Bowie: lead vocal (Mogol, trans.); (Visconti/DB remake) ca. early September 1979, Good Earth Studios, 59 Dean Street, Soho, London. Bowie: lead vocal, 12-string acoustic guitar; Hans Zimmer: piano; Zaine Griff: bass; Andy Duncan: drums. Produced: Bowie, Tony Visconti.

First release: (single) 11 July 1969 (Philips BF 1801, UK #5); (“Ragazzo Solo”) ca. February 1970 (Philips 704 208 BW); (Visconti/DB remake) 15 February 1980 (RCA BOW 5, UK#23); (“1st studio”) 13 May 1984, Love You Till Tuesday; (“Mercury demo”) 19 September 1989, Sound + Vision; (“Clareville Grove” demo) 12 October 2009, Space Oddity (reissue, DBSOCD 40); (“Keyhole” demos) 5 April 2019, Spying Through a Keyhole.

Broadcast: (recording dates) 25 August 1969, Doebiedoe; 2 October 1969, Top of the Pops; 29 October 1969, Musik Für Junge Leute; 3 November 1969, Hits à Gogo; 5 December 1969, Like Now!; 10 May 1970, The Ivor Novello Awards; 22 May 1972, Johnnie Walker Lunchtime Show; 20 October 1973, The 1980 Floor Show; 18 September 1979, Kenny Everett’s Video Show. Live: 1969-1974, 1983, 1990, 1997, 2002.

Among the many sources for this multi-revised beast over the past decade: Kevin Cann’s Any Day Now, Kenneth Pitt’s The Pitt Report, David Buckley’s Strange Fascination, Paul Trynka’s Starman, The David Bowie Story (radio documentary), the Gilmans’ Alias David Bowie, Nicholas Pegg’s The Complete David Bowie, Roger Griffin’s Golden Years, and, most of all, the complete band score David Bowie: Space Oddity—Off the Record. Also a number of contemporary articles, especially Mary Finnigan’s International Times interview (15-21 August 1969), Jojanneke Claassen’s “David Bowie’s Great Love Is His Arts Lab” (Het Parool, 30 August 1969) and Penny Valentine’s “David Bowie Says Most Things the Long Way Round!” (Disc & Music Echo, 25 October 1969). Larry Hardesty figured out the mechanics of this song for me during book revisions. Around the time of the original entry in 2009, Tom Ewing made mention of the blog, which got it some substantial attention and, ultimately, led to a book contract. So thanks again to Tom, whom I’ve had the great pleasure to meet in the years since.