The Last Tour

March 11, 2015

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some postcards from a very long trip:

Song 2 (Rotterdam, 15 October 2003).
It Can’t Happen Here (Vienna, 29 October 2003).
Do You Know the Way to San Jose? (San Jose, 27 January 2004).

“A Reality Tour”—nine months, 22 countries, 59 songs (+ more snippets*) performed, 112 shows—may be Bowie’s last. Even should he play live again, he won’t undertake the relentless global campaign that his 2003-04 tour was. The people of Australia and New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong may never see Bowie again and in North America, it’s fair to say Uncasville (CT), the Quad Cities, Manchester (New Hampshire), Winnipeg, Minneapolis and Hershey (PA) have seen their last Bowie concert.

Tour in capsule: The 57-year-old Bowie, playing markets that, in some cases, he’d last visited in the Eighties, embarked on a grueling schedule that, originally planned for seven months, soon grew to span nearly a year. Each night he played at least two hours and up to 35-song sets. There were a few signs of wear—a bout of flu caused Bowie to cancel a run of shows in December 2003, highly unusual for him (Lou Reed once said that “David never seems to exercise, but he never gets sick”) and his voice was frayed in some mid-winter shows. Upon finishing the last US tour leg, he moved directly to a run of European summer festivals in June 2004. In Prague, he appeared to have a heart attack and after getting through one more show in Germany, he had a heart operation and was forced to cancel the rest of the tour.

He’s never headlined a full concert again. His live appearances dwindled to a handful of guest spots and small sets; after 2007, he was no longer a public performer.

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The future distorts the past. The “Reality” shows now seem hubristic in their energy, pacing and length—why was Bowie pushing himself so much? Take it easy, man! you want to yell at the computer screen when you see a concert clip. But this belies the evidence of the time. Fan reports, newspaper concert reviews, tour diaries of players like Gail Ann Dorsey, video footage of the shows—all document a man seemingly in robust health, in fine voice, eager to play each night.

He said he really was, at last. He’d been wary of singing live since the Sixties. “It was not something I looked forward to very much,” he told the Weekly Dig in late 2003. “I’ve always loved the putting together everything. I love the idea of making albums and writing albums and conceptualizing and all that side of the thing, you know? The actual going out on the road side of the thing—one, I never thought I was that good at it, and two, I just didn’t enjoy the process too much. I don’t know, maybe because I didn’t feel competent as an artist.”

But after Tin Machine and his road-heavy mid-Nineties, he’d developed a taste for the stage. “We did a lot of festivals throughout Europe. I mean, heavens, over a two-year period we did so many,” he told an interviewer. “We were working with really top-rate bands like The Prodigy, bands of that ilk, and we were going down really well. I hadn’t been amongst that many bands continually so it was like, ‘Phew, got to measure myself against this every night’. And it was like, ‘You know what, we’re going down really well considering all these bands are like half my age, some of them a third of my age.'”

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Touring as “himself” to say goodbye, if unknowingly, to the world, Bowie quietly solved the problem of how to reconcile his hits (“singalong time,” he called it) with newer, lesser-known material by just putting the songs cheek-by-jowl in a set, sequencing them so that the crowd wouldn’t get restless and he wouldn’t get bored playing too many old chestnuts. “I can’t do a full evening’s worth of those songs [like “Starman”] because I’ll go barmy. You become a karaoke machine,” he said in 2003 (“look mum, I’m a jukebox!” he snarked after singing “Starman” one night). On stage he used the image of travel to describe his sets to crowds—you’ll go down an unfamiliar road for a while, so just enjoy the sights, and soon enough “you’ll recognize a street, then a house.” (“You’ll recognize this house,” he said, introducing “Ashes to Ashes.”)

He didn’t go easy on his audiences: “Heathen (The Rays)” was occasionally a set-closer or encore piece. “Sunday,”The Motel” and “The Loneliest Guy” (the latter a bathroom break for some griping concertgoers) were regulars. Nor were the oldies only his top-charting hits. There was no “Space Oddity” or “Golden Years,” but plenty of “Fantastic Voyage” and “Be My Wife” and a somber “Loving the Alien.” Over the months, Bowie slowly reshaped his sets into being more retrospective—by spring 2004 he was playing only a handful of Reality songs while cycling in “Queen Bitch,” “Bewlay Brothers,” “Five Years,” “Quicksand,” “Panic In Detroit” and “Diamond Dogs,” mainly for encores.

Judging by the audience reaction to this tour, I think I’ve done the right thing,” he told a reporter midway through the tour, in February 2004. “I think I’ve chosen quite accurately how far I can go with quite new and obscure things, and how much I should balance that with pieces everybody knows.” That said, fan recollections of the shows recounted a fairweather portion of audiences growing impatient at times. “Give us some hits, Davy!” one man loudly yelled in Toronto between songs.

An inspiration was Bob Dylan, who in 2003 was well over a decade into his “Never Ending Tour.” Learning that Dylan made his band keep 70 songs in their repertoire, so that if the mood struck him one night he could play “Lenny Bruce,” Bowie pushed his band to learn around 60 songs and he altered set lists regularly to bring in new pieces and shuffle out old ones. At first this churn was trying for the band—Dorsey wrote in her tour journal that after one show in Paris where Bowie swapped in a bunch of under-rehearsed songs, the band “all felt as if we had fumbled through a tough football match we knew we had lost from the beginning.”** But soon they had it tacked down, capable of playing any era that Bowie threw at them.

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In the works since 2001, the tour’s impetus was in great part financial (which, of course, is the impetus behind every rock tour in history). Despite high chart placings in Britain and Europe, Bowie’s later albums had sold relatively modestly and he got scant airplay for his new singles. It didn’t help matters that the music industry was in free-fall, tottering thanks to Napster, plummeting once the iPod hit critical mass in 2004. Making a living by selling albums was for suckers, Bowie said. “I don’t see any hope for the industry at all. We’re watching it collapse—it’s definitely imploding—and it’s become a source of irrelevance.

So touring was Bowie’s main source of new revenue (at the time, all earnings from much of his back catalog were going to Prudential Insurance, holder of the Bowie Bonds). And his Area 2 festival shows of 2002 had grossed $4.7 million, with attendance down from earlier “mini tours.” Bowie’s people surveyed fans and found them unhappy with the recent shows, which had been built around festivals and sharing the stage with other headliners. There was a hunger for an undiluted Bowie, by a global market. He hadn’t been to Singapore and Hong Kong since 1983, Australia and New Zealand since 1987, Japan since 1996, South America since 1997 (and he never would make it back to South America).

Using goliath Clear Channel Entertainment, Bowie and his advisers drafted a flexible tour schedule—he’d play the arenas he knew could sell out (like Wembley) but he’d also book 2,000-seat theaters in less predictable markets. And he often underestimated demand: he booked the 4,400-seat Rosemont Theatre for his Chicago stop, but sales were enough to justify playing the Rosemont two more nights. The tour wound up grossing $46 million, even with its premature end.

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I know I’m a solo artist, but there are aspects of being a solo artist I don’t particularly enjoy, being separated from the others. I don’t like the feeling of being closeted somewhere on my own. I’ve always liked being part of a band—I did with the Spiders, I liked it with Tin Machine and that feeds back into the music. It starts to take on a coherence and a solidarity within the seven of us.

Bowie, Scotland on Sunday, June 2004 (his last newspaper interview to date).

His band was the “Hours” tour rhythm section (Dorsey and Sterling Campbell), old standby Mike Garson, guitarists Gerry Leonard (playing the “Fripp,” “Belew” and “Gabrels” roles) and Earl Slick (playing himself) and the most recent addition, from 2002: Catherine Russell, a utility player who sang, played keyboards, percussion and guitar. They were a no-nonsense crew who’d worked with Bowie, in some cases, over decades. If they lacked in improvisation, mainly keeping to established arrangements, they made up for it in power and precision, aided by a cracking sound mix in which “David’s voice sits on top, but this is not a Vegas-style show. The band is every bit as present as they need to be,” said front-of-the-house engineer Pete Keppler.

The aim was to make the band heard clearly throughout the room, even the largest stadium gigs. So Keppler and monitor engineer Michael Prowda used a JBL VerTec PA system, with 14 cabinets and subwoofers on each side of the stage and Prowda mixing each song live with a 14-track console (“Every song is a scene and I have some 50-odd scenes”). Bowie used a vocal effects system that included a Digitech Vocalist and a Moog moogerfooger to alter his voice on a whim. “David has two volume pedals onstage where he mixes his own distortion and doubling and sets his volume level. He’s hearing the balance in his head and wants it to sound similarly in the house,” Prowda said.

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Wearing jeans, a t-shirt and scarf, leather boots or Chuck Taylors and a tattered jacket to be discarded after a few songs*** (“it’s a T-shirt and jeans type show, believe me that’s what it is”), Bowie became something of a traveling politician and emcee, pulling the same jokes each night, gurning, pantomiming (doing a runway strut for “Fashion,” Pierrot-isms for “Ashes to Ashes,” drag queen moves for “China Girl”), bantering with the crowd (“how DO you get your hair that color? What product do you use?” to a fan in Copenhagen; calling one guy in Atlanta “fancy pants”), having the crowd sing verses of “All the Young Dudes” and “China Girl.” “Constantly grinning,” Billboard noted of Bowie’s performance in New York. In Berkeley he “pranced theatrically, calling himself the Artful Dodger, imitated Americans and Americans imitating the British,” a reviewer wrote. In Denver, he did a bit of his old Elephant Man performance. He usually opened shows with “[YOUR CITY HERE] you bunch of crazy motherfuckers!”

It was all his “schtick,” as he described it to journalists. “I just want to have a laugh with the audience. I don’t want it any other way,” he said. “If there’s a sense of seriousness, that comes in the songs themselves….Performing isn’t a life-threatening situation in the scheme of things.” Or as the Kinks once sang, it’s only jukebox music.

This was a return to an old form: the fey, witty folk musician of “Bowie and Hutch,” who’d made his hippie audiences crack up between numbers. Or the would-be cabaret star of 1968, the “all-round entertainer” persona that his old manager Kenneth Pitt had believed was Bowie’s best bet for stardom. Reviving this glad-handing figure for the “A Reality Tour” (the indefinite article, mind) was a theatrical bit, a way for Bowie to serve as stage manager and frontman.

But he also seemed intent on de-mystifying “Bowie” at last. I’ll do songs I like, I’ll play songs you like, let’s have fun. The only stage props were catwalks, video screens and some tree branches suspended in mid-air. Each night of the tour found a magician walking on stage in shirt sleeves, showing you how he made his assistant disappear via a set of mirrors, recalling favorite sleights of hand. And then still making you fall for the trick.

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Then his luck turned.

Early summer 2004 was dismal in northern Europe, with nearly every Bowie festival appearance that June plagued by rains and wind. At the Norwegian Wood Festival in Oslo, on 18 June, he was struck in the eye by a lollipop, causing him to understandably lose his shit for a moment. Gerry Leonard said a fan had somehow hit a bullseye (the thrower was a mortified thirtysomething who claimed she’d just been waving her hands when someone knocked into her and caused her to project the lollipop). The next festival, in Finland, passed uneventfully in rain. Then came Prague.

He opened with “Life on Mars?” for the first time on the tour, and eight songs in, while singing “Reality,” it was obvious to fans in the front rows that Bowie was in pain, struggling to finish the song. He left the stage, the band keeping going with “New Career In a New Town” and “Be My Wife” (sung by Cat Russell). “‘That’s not supposed to happen,” Leonard recalled thinking. “He was really feeling terrible. it happened right there on the stage: that’s showbiz.” Returning to apologize, Bowie blamed a trapped nerve in his shoulder. He sang “China Girl,” still in noticeable pain, and left the stage again after an aborted “Station to Station.”

It was as if the persona he’d developed for the tour, the music man who gave you a bang for the buck, wouldn’t let him end a set early. So he went back out again to finish “Station” and sing “Modern Love” and “The Man Who Sold the World” while sitting on a stool and clutching his arm. Finally he pulled the plug. Our Czech correspondent, longtime commenter Maj, was there: she told me that the crowd soon grew aware something was wrong: “There might have been a few boos because it got cut short, but I think mostly we were confused & a bit worried.”

While not confirmed, it seems apparent that Bowie had a heart attack that night, possibly while singing. It may not have been the first time, either. Gabrels told Marc Spitz, one of Bowie’s biographers, that “I knew for years that he was having some chest pains, but he swore me to secrecy, and I should have told Iman.”

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If all this turned out badly and I didn’t enjoy it, I’d just have to create a character to get out of being me again, I suppose. Now there’s a story! There’s an album there (laughs).

Bowie, Weekly Dig.

There would be one more show.

The annual Hurricane Festival is held on a motorcycle racetrack in Scheeßel, a German village southwest of Hamburg. An unassuming place to close a story that began on Bloomsday, 16 June 1962, with 15-year-old David Jones’ first-ever public gig, playing Shadows covers at the Bromley Tech PTA Fete.

Fans noticed nothing amiss during the set, with Bowie moving around on stage and playing some guitar (he did seem to have a moment of pain during “Ashes to Ashes,” clutching his arm again). As evening drew in, it got colder, the North Sea winds coming across the Lower Saxony plains, and Bowie donned a simple grey sweatshirt. It’s poignant: Bowie finally reduced to the human, looking like a handsome, tired dad at a football game. Or a fishing boat captain weathering a storm (via Chris Barrus).

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“Heroes” (Hurricane Festival).

He closed the set with “Heroes.” Leonard starts with an ascending, choppy figure on guitar, jabbing against a backdrop of Sterling Campbell’s snare and cymbals. Bowie holds back, knotting his fingers below his chin, as if he’s outside looking in, even slightly bemused by his old dramatics (he does a little dolphin dance). Dorsey’s pensive, working down the song. Slick comes in, cool and indifferent, chewing gum. At last, the wailing Fripp riff (courtesy of Leonard’s E-bow) appears and Bowie starts drawing power from somewhere in him, diving into the song, resurfacing, torching through its last verses. And the SHAME spread on the OTHER SIDE!, gesturing off towards a lost Berlin to the east. And NOTHING and NO ONE will HELP us! while Campbell plays hard enough to power a city.

Do they, does he, know it’s the end? But it is the end. An end, at least. The moment has chosen itself. This is the wake for David Bowie. We’ll never see his like again. Nor will he.

UK: The Nokia Isle of Wight Festival 2004 - Day Three

He encored with “Life On Mars?” (opening with it was bad mojo), “Suffragette City” and he closed the show, as he had for almost every other show on the tour, with “Ziggy Stardust.” The next day, at St. Georg Hospital in Hamburg, a surgeon performed an angioplasty to treat a blocked artery in Bowie’s heart, inserting a stent to open up a blood vessel narrowed by plaque.

Bowie was in hospital for over a week. One by one, his appearances at the remaining June festivals and the eleven July festival dates were cancelled. Scotland’s T in the Park, where Bowie had hoped to meet one of his new favorite bands, Franz Ferdinand. The Xacobeo Festival in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where he would have shared a bill with Iggy Pop again.

He gave a public statement, said he was irked that the tour had to end this way but that he was feeling better and hoped to “get back to work” within a month. It would be a touch longer than that.

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Following a rehearsal gig in August and a “satellite link-up” spectacle filmed at Riverside Studios in September, the tour ran from 7 October 2003 (Copenhagen) to 25 June 2004 (Hurricane). The 22-23 November 2003 shows at The Point in Dublin were filmed, with an edited selection of performances released as the A Reality Tour DVD on 19 October 2004 (a slightly-expanded version was released on CD in 2010).

Of immense help to this entry was the site Bowie Wonderworld, which provided a day-by-day account of the tour while it happened, compiling set lists and fan testimonies.

* No clips on YT, but Bowie also sang bits of songs like “Puppet On a String,” “My Funny Valentine” and “Here Comes the Sun” at other dates.

** Though he sound-checked and rehearsed “Win,” Bowie never played it, only humming it once at his penultimate US show on 4 June 2004.

*** In Adelaide on 23 February 2004, Bowie showed up in a grey zoot suit, sporting a trilby, braces and two fob chains, claiming he’d “found this pair of gardening trousers.” He was back to his usual “casual” costume by the following show, later saying he’d switched into gouster duds out of boredom.

Photos: a curtain call (unsure from which show); Melbourne, 26 February 2004 (Trevor Wilson); Pittsburgh, 17 May 2004 (Keith Sparbanie); Bowie and Debbie Harry backstage in Manchester, 17 November 2003 (Ian Hodgson); Houston, 24 April 2004 (Mark Jeremy); Kansas City, 10 May 2004 (Deryck Higgins); Indianapolis, 20 May 2004; Isle of Wight Festival, 13 June 2004 (Anthony Abbott); Hurricane Festival; Bowie at the Rainbow Theatre, London, 1972.


A Contest

February 27, 2015

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We’re now a month away from the release of Rebel Rebel, and as a first bit of hype I offer a reader contest. The winner will receive (drum roll)….a copy of the book mailed to them, before the publishing date. If you’d like, I’ll sign the thing, too. And I will write whatever you’d like me to, barring it being obscene or potentially libelous.

The “Bring Me the Disco King” entry opens with a fictional account of a woman who attended a Bowie concert at Madison Square Garden in August 1977. The conceit is that in this alternate universe Bowie, instead of escaping to France and Berlin in late 1976 and recording Low and “Heroes,” instead found himself back in Los Angeles and, a year later, was touring again.

So, my challenge: what would the set list of this 1977 show be? The most inspired one wins a book.

Some parameters. Here are a bunch of set lists from the 1976 tour as a first guideline. Bowie typically played 15-20 songs a night in ’76, which would likely be what an even Thinner White Duke would do in 1977. Let’s not have him doing some marathon 35-song set, for my sake.

My fake account begins with him singing “Five Years” and later has him playing “Sister Midnight,” “Sweet Head,” “Fame” and “Stay,” but you don’t have to include these songs. Feel free to do so, though.

Songs on the list should be confined to anything Bowie recorded prior to 1977, and given the path of our fictional narrative, it’s unlikely any of the Eno instrumentals would have been written, so no “Warszawa” exists in this world, for instance. If you make the case that Bowie would be singing something from the ’80s, explain why, and it had better be a good reason.

Points awarded for originality and flow (would this have worked as an actual set? Don’t just throw a bunch of songs together). May the best person win!

Send your ballot to: bowiesongs@gmail.com (put “setlist” in the subject line) by Friday, March 6. I’ll choose a winner on the auspicious date of Friday, March 13, and will try to get the book in the mail that weekend. Obviously, if you’re outside the US (where I live), the book will take a bit longer to reach you, but you should get it prior to the official publication date (edit: well, it looks like the book’s begun shipping to pre-orderers,so you won’t get it before they do. But hey, you won’t have to pay for it).

Best of luck.

CONTEST OVER: THANKS FOR THE AMAZING ENTRIES. IT WILL BE MURDER TO PICK ONE OF ‘EM AS A “WINNER.”


Isn’t It Evening (The Revolutionary)

February 25, 2015

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Isn’t It Evening (The Revolutionary) (Earl Slick with David Bowie).

Whenever the “who’s the greatest Bowie guitarist” debate arises (typically by dudes), there are few contenders. Mick Ronson, architect of Bowie’s breakthrough. Carlos Alomar, ultimate right-hand man. Adrian Belew, Reeves Gabrels and Robert Fripp: instigators. That’s pretty much the lot.

It’s rare for someone to argue for Earl Slick, despite his pedigree—hot Young Turk on the Diamond Dogs tour, adding guts to the Lennon tracks on Young Americans, being the linchpin of Station to Station. Called back for the Serious Moonlight tour, and the mainstay of the last Bowie tours and albums. Slick is one of the last remaining ties to Bowie’s past: of the players on The Next Day, only he and Tony Visconti had worked with Bowie in the Seventies.

So why doesn’t he get his due? Maybe he never shed the “hired gun” label (he had to fill Ronson’s shoes in 1974 and was drafted as a last-minute replacement for Stevie Ray Vaughan on the 1983 tour). Or that he’s not considered a bandleader in the way that Ronson, Alomar and Gabrels were. Some critics and fans have argued he lacks a signature sound. You can hear a few notes of Ronson and Alomar and likely place them, but what defines Earl Slick?

This gives him too little credit. Slick’s playing has a distinctive tone, a bluesy, swaggering sensibility: there’s an attitude in his string bends (only Ronson could wring more out of his bends) and pick attacks; he seems hell-bent on making his amplifiers smoke. John Lennon got Slick for the Double Fantasy sessions because “he wanted one street guy in there” among the studio aces, and Bowie regarded Slick in much the same way, as a fearless “blue-collar” guitarist who wasn’t plagued by good taste. Slick’s peak was “Station to Station,” where his regiments of overdubbed guitars created a sound that even Belew struggled to reproduce on stage.

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Slick grew up in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. Kicking around in a few NYC bands in the early Seventies, Slick met the composer/arranger Michael Kamen, who hired him as a roadie and then as a guitarist. Kamen, chosen as bandleader for the Diamond Dogs tour, suggested Bowie consider Slick as a lead player. “I went down to RCA Studios to meet him, they stuck a set of headphones on me, turned on some Diamond Dogs mixes and told me to play along,” Slick recalled in 2003. “They didn’t even tell me what fuckin’ key they were in.” He got the gig.

Within months, though, he was on the outs. Bowie reconfigured the tour in September 1974 to reflect his new “soul” music and Slick now had to share the stage with a rival guitarist, Alomar, and a new vocal chorus, and tackle songs that Bowie hadn’t even released yet. “I thought I was important to the thing but I’m starting to feel like a fuckin’ throwaway,” he told Bowie biographers the Gilmans in the mid-Eighties. “David had gone completely in a direction I didn’t like.” Slick realized he’d only hung onto his job “because they needed me for the rock material.”

So Station to Station became Slick and Alomar battling for control, each overdubbing the other, each trying to outplay the other. Alomar, who’d assembled a rhythm section he was in sync with, had pole position; Slick, who’d made the strategic blunder of signing with Bowie’s soon-to-be-estranged new manager, was outside, trying to knife his way in. The title track, “TVC 15,” “Golden Years” and “Stay” are the records of their battles—Alomar sparring with one of his endless catchy riffs, Slick retaliating with massive chords and feedback concertos.

Slick was gone before the 1976 tour. In the Eighties he was a session man and leader of his own sub-super group, Phantom, Rocker & Slick. In the Nineties, he cleaned up and burned out. “Every time I got called to do anything, or when anybody was going to get involved with me, it was for that—more of the same,” he told Billboard in 2003. “And I remember going onstage doing another, yet one more blues rock solo, and just thinking, ‘Man, this is not fun.’ And at the time, I don’t think I was conscious of whether I was bored with what I was doing, with that kind of guitar playing, or if I just started hating music. I didn’t know where I was at.”

So he quit. Moved to Lake Tahoe with his Newfoundlands, stayed off the grid for years. When he put up his own website, around 1999, he got back on Bowie’s radar. The story was that Bowie, who was spending hours on the Internet at the time, did the usual thing: he wondered “hey, whatever became of Slick?” and typed his name into AltaVista. And so Bowie (or a staffer) discovered Slick was living in the High Sierras. Around New Year 2000, an email invitation was sent to Slick’s webmaster, and Slick went to New York to, yet again, step in for a departing lead guitarist: in this case, Reeves Gabrels. Slick played on Bowie’s 2000 mini-tour, and has been on every Bowie album and tour since.

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It helped that Bowie was reviving many of his Seventies rockers on stage and that the new songs from Heathen and Reality suited Slick’s style—Bowie wasn’t asking him to do many drum ‘n’ bass numbers. Slick also had cooled down. “I don’t like using my chops anymore. It bores me,” he told Vintage Guitar.I approached David Bowie’s stuff a lot differently way back than I do now. I’m playing less, but I think my playing is a lot more intense and I’m playing more to the sound of things. I’m playing simpler and a little more thematic, and a lot less jammy and bluesy than I used to. Because I write so much now, I’m approaching the songs more like a songwriter.”

Invigorated by working on Bowie’s albums and tours, Slick in 2001 began planning his first solo album in over a decade. Originally he was going to make an instrumental record, using fellow Bowie sideman Mark Plati as producer, but he didn’t have the stomach to cut a “noodling” album, as lead guitarists usually produce. (“I’ve never been that much of a heavy noodler anyway,” he said.) Instead, Zig Zag started as Slick’s attempts at writing incidental music for films, keeping his tracks concise and melodic. “The album was almost like making a demo to get scoring jobs.”

But Slick had racked up admirers over the years, so he soon had Robert Smith singing on one track, and Joe Elliott, Royston Langdon (Spacehog) and Martha Davis (the Motels) were also on board. Bowie not-quite-subtly invited himself. “He overheard a conversation I was having with [Plati]… and said, ‘I guess you’re not interested in me maybe doing a little something on the record,‘” Slick recalled.

Each guest singer had provided their top melodies and lyrics, and Bowie did the same. His contribution, “Isn’t It Evening (The Revolutionary),” which Slick described as “pensive,” came after Slick sent Bowie “seven really rough pieces” and he picked one. Once the track was properly recorded, Bowie came to Looking Glass Studios (during the recording of Reality in early 2003) to cut his typically quick-take vocal. “He asked what I thought about the ending and I said, “Well, what if you tried this on the harmony…,” Slick recalled. “It was fucking weird giving him direction! I was stepping back from myself the whole time, like there was one of me at the console and one of me just watching everything in the room.”

The result was a track that, unlike some other Bowie side-project contributions, was worthy of his own albums. Bowie’s lyrics and melodies are in line with the somber theatricals of Heathen and Reality, with some striking lines (“one dies on the lawn/his face turned away from it all“). The track’s final-curtain mood makes “Isn’t It Evening” another end point for a professional life that, unknown to all concerned, was about to go on hiatus for a decade.

So here’s to the perennially-underrated Earl Slick: say what you’d like, but he outlasted ’em all.

Recorded: (Bowie vocal) Looking Glass Studios, ca. February 2003; (guitars, backing tracks) ca. late 2002, early 2003, Looking Glass. Released 9 December 2003 on Zig Zag (Sanctuary 06076-84671).

Top: Camilio Vergara, “‘Satan, you are not longer my Lord,’ Outdoor service of the New Creation Ministry, Sutter Ave., Brooklyn, 2003.”


Bring Me the Disco King

February 17, 2015

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Bring Me the Disco King.
Bring Me the Disco King (video).
Bring Me the Disco King (“Loner Mix” (Danny Lohner)).
Bring Me the Disco King (live, 2003).
Bring Me the Disco King (live, 2003).

Interview transcript, 5/9/2005: OSTERMAN, D., RHINEBECK, NY.

I missed the ’76 tour but I was there at the Garden in August ’77. You’ve heard the show, right? Yeah, right? My kid got the boxed set a while back. I didn’t want to hear it. I heard it once, you know? All you need. All I need, at least.. [inaudible] well, look, the show took forever to get going. Like two hours of lights dimming and going back up, to all these big moaning groans from the crowd, and this fucked-up metal-shredding noise kept playing on the PA, setting everyone on edge. The mood, you can expect, was just…off. Everyone in my group, five of us, was seriously high—we had some ludes and some pot that was laced with who knows what. Not just us. The whole crowd was high on something, or were just tensed for something.

Finally the lights went down for good and Bowie came out. He was pin-thin and wore all black—black suit coat, black rosette in his lapel, black shoes. Black hat? Maybe. Black cane, yes. Leaned on it a lot. Contrast to his face and hands, which were just…I’ve never seen skin shine like that. Like moon-skin. And he was still living in LA then, right? I guess he never went outside [laughs].

He started, I remember, with “Five Years,” and it was just the slowest, most dragging version that you could imagine—was like a year between the drum hits. And he just stood there, just propped against the mike stand, and after a long while he started singing, low, real ghostly. [sings] “Pushing through the market square…” You know how it goes. Then he seemed to kinda wake up and the band really kicked in. He had, maybe, three guitarists? A guy on a huge keyboard too. Drummer had a gong.

There was a bunch of disco stuff, really savage-sounding stuff. Couldn’t really dance to it: too fast. “Fame,” “Stay,” “Calling Sister Midnight,” “Gimme Sweet Head.” He would sing some, then let his band jam for like 10 minutes, then he’d pick up again. While they played he looked out at the crowd, like he was scanning for someone he knew. He did some new stuff, too, maybe ones he never recorded, like this one song I just remember he was yelling “bring me the disco king!” Over and over again. That was most of the song. His hands were up in the air, like someone had a gun on him. Then he did this lunge, this weird pivot, at the mike and said something like, “here’s a new one for you New Yorkers, it’s called “Blackout!””

And you remember the blackout had happened just the month before and everyone in that room was probably there in the city during it and..I mean, parts of the city were probably still on fire then! And Bowie sent like an electric current through the place. Have you ever been on a boat during a storm? The crowd was listing, listing, like, say the right side of the Garden kind of convulsed and then it sort of shivered across until the left side got all worked up. Screams, really big shrieks, you know. This guy the row up from us started shaking, having a fit. Making this awful noise, I still remember, this little hut-hut-hut-hut-hut sound. Bowie was really caught up in the song, just wailing at it, but then he’d crouch, almost squat down on stage, like he was like holding off punches. I couldn’t breathe all of a sudden and my friend Cindy was crying, so when the strobe lights started, I figured we just had to get out of there. Nearly got in two fights just getting into the walkway.

We got out on Eighth Ave., probably by the time of “Station to Station,” when that kid got stabbed, right? I was happy to be out. Though I loved Bowie, you know? Really. I was such a fan. But that wasn’t a good place. And what happened to him in ’78—well, you can’t be surprised, really, though, can you?

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Excerpt from Musician, May 1990, “The London Gang’s All Here.”

Musician: So everyone in the group was in London with you? In the ’60s?

Bowie: Yes, although we didn’t all work together then, except for John [Hutchinson] and I. Andy [Mackay] wasn’t quite there—he was still at university until 1969 or 1970, I believe. But he knew the scene, went to a lot of the shows, same as I did. Bill [Legend] of course was Marc’s drummer, on all the great T. Rex singles. Oh and yes, Herbie [Flowers] was on one of my records and one of Lou’s, and he even produced a single that no one ever remembers, called “Holy Holy.”

M: And the band’s name is a tribute to one of your other old singles? That no one remembers?

B: [Laughs]. It wasn’t even on the radar enough to be forgotten! But I always thought it my first proper recording, my first proper song, and it meant a great deal to me. Though we weren’t quite proper London Boys! I was in Beckenham until 1971 or 1972. Hutch was in Canada.

M: Have you gotten flak for going down this nostalgic route? You’re going to be playing a lot of old songs, and you haven’t made any new records since Never Let Me Down.

B: Which has few supporters, I’ve found. No, I wouldn’t call us a nostalgia act at all. There’s a Buzzcocks song that goes, “nostalgia for an age yet to come.” Well this is a nostalgia for a past that never was. I think we bring something new to the table. Though of course we’ve all been on the scene for quite a while. But never quite in this combination.

M: And this is the last time you’re singing your old songs? Are you recording new ones?

B: That’s the plan, yes. Once we’re back from South America later this year, we’re going to see what happens in the studio. One possible title is Bring Me the Disco King [laughs]. You can just see the cover image, right? Henry V, ordering some flamboyant conquered foe to be brought to him in irons.

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“Bring Me the Disco King” first went public in a mix (for the soundtrack of Underworld) in which the Bowie track’s sole elements—Mike Garson’s piano, Matt Chamberlain’s drum loop and, for a good chunk of the song, Bowie’s vocal—were erased and replaced by Nine Inch Nails guitarist Danny Lohner. In this alternate world, Lisa Germano plays piano, John Frusciante’s on lead guitar and Josh Freese drums. And Maynard James Keenan sings some of it.

You may wish to listen to the remix first, because it feels like the most “complete” version of the song, making Bowie’s track sound like a polished, slightly avant-garde demo. The Lohner remix builds steadily, from Frusciante’s looped, distorted Fender in the intro to the string settings and Keenan taking over the refrains.

This wouldn’t be the first time that a “sequel” to a Bowie song supplants the original recording: I’ve long argued the recut/overdubbed version of “Rebel Rebel,” completed in New York months after the Diamond Dogs version, is the superior recording. You could say the definitive “Station to Station” is the (likely doctored) Philadelphia live recording on Stage (used in Christiane F.), and that some of the Reality songs hit harder in their tour versions.

Consider if the remix was the only version of the song, that the Bowie/Garson take was as “lost” today as the Nineties versions of “Disco King” are (see below). That Bowie’s grand finale existed only as a mid-sequence mood piece on a Kate Beckinsale vampire movie soundtrack.

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Excerpt from Simon King, The Royal Scam: A Misspent Youth In the Advertising World (Clearwater: 1995):

Bill said DJ wanted me in his office “yesterday.” First, a trip to the men’s room (thankfully, I still had some coke from the night before). I was bracing for the worst. So, it seemed, was Bill. “King, bring me the disk before you go upstairs,” he said while I was putting on my jacket and pinching some life into my face.

I’d never ever spoken to DJ before, only seen him from across the floor. He worked in three different offices—London, here in NYC and Tokyo—but he was more like some global embodiment of Jones & Bond, his official residence a first-class airplane seat. DJ was a figure of abstract terror for our office. He’d show up on a Friday afternoon and within an hour three people would be packing their desks and you might be reassigned to a new account that had a project due on Monday morning at 8 AM.

His secretary, who looked like a Modigliani come to life, waved me through. DJ was at his desk, which was immaculate and had nothing resembling work on it. He asked me to sit. It’s hard to describe how incredibly striking-looking he was. He was around 40 but looked at least a decade younger. No visible work done, just a sense that life hadn’t managed to touch him yet. He was steeped in charisma. This was a guy who’d started in the business in ’63, when he was barely out of high school, and in two years he was all but running the show at Collett Dickenson Pearce. His own shop by ’68. He could have been anything—an actor, a prime minister. (Rumor was he cut a few Beatles-type singles back when, but no one at J&B has turned up anything).

I tried to meet his gaze. He had an irregular right pupil, permanently dilated, so naturally you were drawn to it but you also kept trying to not stare at it. He, of course, was entirely aware of this situation and used it as a power play, making whoever was across the desk look at anything else (there was a Japanese-looking guitar on the wall, I noticed).

“Simon,” he began. “You consider advertising to be beneath your substantive talents. Is that a fair assessment?”

I think I flushed. Here it comes. “You spend your nights in the East Village and give off that you’re a frustrated, sadly corrupted artist. I quite empathize, but you must realize this is a rather tedious existence.” He took a Gauloise from his pocket and lit it with a bone-handle lighter produced seemingly out of thin air. “Substantive art is not born from such a cliche.”

“I was very much in your shoes once. But I came to realize that advertising has a much greater purchase on the imagination than any painting. What’s the promise of art? What’s its potential? Immortality? Fame? Power? If you want to colonize dreams, if you want to create a desire—to make someone need something they never knew they needed—if you’d like to stage how people regard reality itself, our field offers some promise.”

He drew out another cigarette and pushed it towards me across his desk. “A Tibetan lama once said there are two forms of art—black magic to turn people’s heads and “white” reality art. We’ve well enough of the latter. Simon, would you care to work on some black magic with me? It should prove interesting, at least.”

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Review: “Expatriates in Berlin: 1980-2000″ (James Cohan Gallery, until May 23).

The exhibit includes six works by David Bowie, the former rock performer from the 1970s best known for his gender-fluid chameleon figures on stage. Bowie has worked as a painter and an avant-garde filmmaker since his retirement, though his technique has shown little signs of improvement and his subject matter remains obscure and, in its way, provincial.

Of the pictures (three in oil, one black pencil, two mixed-media), the most promising was “(Bring Me) The Disco King and His Wives,” a 6′ x 12′ abstract work with some furious brushwork and a good sense of scale. Unfortunately even this pales to the work of other Berlin-based artists featured, especially the Archine sisters. One wonders why Bowie has abandoned a field in which he was so capable to devote his time to one in which he’ll always be a second-rater.

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“Bring Me the Disco King” dated to the early Nineties, Bowie said. He wrote the song for the Black Tie White Noise sessions in 1992. “I initially did a version of it which played to the title, alarmingly…I wanted it to sound cheesy and kitschy, and be a kind of real uptempo, disco-y kind of slam at late Seventies disco. And the trouble is, it sounded cheesy and kitschy, ha ha! It just didn’t work. It didn’t have any weight to it.” Attempting it again during the Earthling sessions (“we did it in a sort of muscular way, like the band was at that particular time“), he found the track still lacking.

Of course, there are no circulating demos or outtakes of these early versions of “Disco King,” so there’s no way to trace the song’s evolution. And it’s tempting to wonder whether there were any early versions. After all, Bowie likes to lie to us, so perhaps he invented a tangled family history for his big album-closer, which was one of the longest tracks he ever recorded and which, for a decade, was his Last Word on Record (though it wasn’t, quite).

Let’s take Bowie at his word. “Disco King” doesn’t seem originally intended for piano, in the way that, say, “Lady Grinning Soul” or “Oh! You Pretty Things” were. It’s possible the song began as a simple guitar piece in E minor (with a capoed first fret to move the song, vocally, to F minor), and chord-wise it’s fairly standard (if it was written on guitar down a half-step, the verse chords would be Em/D/B/Em or C/Em/D/C).

But the chords on the Reality track were Garson’s choices. Bowie played the latter his vocal over the drum loop and told Garson to “show me the chords,” using Bowie’s top melody as a guide. So Garson’s intro and outro loops F minor, A# and G# (calling back to “Aladdin Sane,” where Garson soloed over the latter two (flattened) chords), and he’ll swap chords for climactic effect—shifting “bring me the disco king” to F minor after Bowie initially sings it over C# and D#, or reversing the latter two chords for the last extended refrain (“soon there’ll be nothing left of me”). (Thanks to regular commenter “CrayontoCrayon” for his help.)

Giving the song a lost, troubled ancestry adds more dimensions, echoes—the ear wonders how “Disco King” could have worked with a disco or techno beat (“I had those drums on it, the works, you know, it’s a 120-beats-a-minute,” Bowie said), how Bowie’s phrasing would have changed (imagine the “don’t let me know we’re invisible” sung varisped at double the tempo).

It fits how Bowie’s final “Disco King” was partially assembled out of lost songs—its “dance dance dance/through the fire” nearly the same melody as Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie,” its drum track cut by Matt Chamberlain during the Heathen sessions in 2001 (“playing to a completely different song,” Tony Visconti said. “We just recorded ‘Disco King’ over the loops that I’d made of his performance”). Or how the notes of Garson’s piano are essentially samples, as he played his lines on Bowie’s Yamaha digital piano in New York.

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The Goblin King was driven out of his kingdom by a palace revolt. Now this wasn’t much of a revolt, as revolts go, more a minor insurrection of a few disgruntled goblins and a set of confused bureaucrats. It could have been crushed with some choice spells and head-whackings. But the King was weary of his throne and he saw a choice opportunity to escape.

He traveled in the cities of the Western Lights, where, in his sweeping cloak and shining boots, he cut a noticeable figure in the marketplaces and piazzas, and for a time he attended the monastery balls each evening, once winning a dancing contest against a Kermode bear. But there was a melancholy in his step and his demeanor, and he found the crowds oppressive, especially as it was growing near carnival time. So he went further westward, out to the few scattered settlements and ranch towns along the Peninsula. He took up residence in a two-story hotel that was perched on the thin end of a frozen lake.

One night he was at his usual table when a man came in. The latter was known to the proprietor, a woman of few words, who called him “El Mayor,” and he sat by the fire, not acknowledging his fellow guest. This was fine for the King, who had no appetite for conversation. Still, as the two saw each other on the succeeding evenings, they began talking, took their meals together and played checkers afterward. The proprietor played songs on guitar: “Out On the Lamplighter,” “Aubergine,” “Traiga La Disco.” “King me,” El Mayor said, ending a game with a hopscotching movement across the board. Later in the evening, he was walking up the staircase to his room when he saw the King descending.

“Whose story are we in?” El Mayor said.

“I couldn’t tell you, Tomás,” the King replied.

“But it’s a story nonetheless.”

“I suppose. Its length is its only virtue.”

“It’s not a very good story, then?”

“Are they ever?”

“Sometimes,” El Major considered. “I’m happy: hope you’re happy, too.”

“Not particularly,” the King said.

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“Short Picks,” JazzWeb, 10 May 1998.

Label: King (Disco 1). “Bring Me The French Reserves.” Zurich free-jazz ensemble Malachi (rumored to include David Bowie among its ranks—its LPs never feature credits) offers two 30-minute free form jams featuring a distorted alto saxophone, vibraphone, car horns and arco bass. Recommended.

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Garson’s piano solo on “Aladdin Sane” gave Duncan “Zowie” Jones nightmares when he was a child, Garson recently said. Likely not the only one. Garson’s solo on “Aladdin Sane” is one of a few endpoints in Bowie’s work, being Bowie’s most avant-garde (if outsourced) moment on record. If you were to constellate Bowie songs, the solo would place “Aladdin Sane” out along the edges.

So it’s fitting that Bowie chose Garson to be the harmonic support for “Bring Me the Disco King,” which at some point in the Reality sessions Bowie had pegged as an album closer. It’s very unlikely at the time that Bowie considered Reality as any sort of last work (he would mention a new album throughout the tour and into 2005). But given the weighty end-of-days imagery he’d been playing with since Hours, perhaps it seemed appropriate to have a grand summary piece, in the way a television show uncertain of being renewed will shoot a final episode that could double as a series-ender.

What a difference between the madcap Garson of “Aladdin Sane,” a man running a series of parlor tricks and throwing Cecil Taylor and Keith Tippett figures into a blender, and the more stately figure on “Disco King,” whose opening riff seems a slower, truncated version of the intro to Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” (possibly because Bowie’s first line sounds a bit like Donald Fagen’s: “while the music played, you worked by candlelight“).

Often keeping to his bass keys, Garson gives brief ascending or descending chord figures as hooks, laces Bowie’s verse lines with discreet note runs, provides chordal support just when Bowie expects it, on a dramatic pause or an emphasis, while also rhythmically playing off Chamberlain’s looped drum figure. His solos on “Aladdin Sane” had acted as if Bowie’s vocal melody was off in another dimension, whereas here Garson remains in gracious service to the song, never straying too far from its confines, worrying out the “disco king” melody in his closing solo. This is, as of this writing, Garson’s last performance on a Bowie record; there have been no finer last acts for Bowie sidemen.

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Excerpt from Hollywood’s Greatest Disasters (Methuen: 1988).

By May 1980, The Cubists was $10 million over budget, only four complete scenes had been shot and Stoppard’s script (which Godard had never consulted) was still being revised. After having seen dailies, producer De Laurentiis called a temporary halt to the filming for a week, at the end of which he fired Godard (who had already left the set) and said he would recast the Braque and Léger roles, much to the consternation of De Niro, who had developed a good rapport with Depardieu during the shooting of 1900 and was upset the latter would no longer be playing Léger.

The replacement leads, however, were at first warmly received, particularly Bowie, who played well against De Niro. To the shock of nearly all concerned, the first two weeks of resumed filming went smoothly, with much of the Paris exteriors completed. The move to Cinecittà, however, proved disastrous. Walken fell ill with colitis, De Niro was acting increasingly erratic (at times speaking in a pidgin French no one could understand) and Brando had still yet to appear on the set. A stage hand fell to his death, the atelier set burned down in a mysterious fire (some suspected the desperate producer’s hand). There was, consecutively, a flood, a rat infestation, a bomb threat by a remnant of the Red Brigades, a supporting actor suddenly becoming mute, a second fire, a third fire, and the violent reappearance of Godard, who demanded he be restored to the director’s chair (by this point, the 2nd AD was doing much of the primary shooting).

Throughout it all, sources said, Bowie was unflappable, even when summoned to the set by De Laurentiis yelling “bring me the disco king.” His long years in live television, co-hosting revues with Petula Clark and Cher, had inured him to chaotic situations on set, and he entertained fellow actors with impromptu songs he played on guitar during the many breaks in filming. De Niro recalled hearing a charming one “about some kind of astronaut rock star” and said he wished Bowie would have made a “proper album, as he was never really given his due.” “Bowie was the only good thing about that misbegotten wreck,” Walken later said. “It should not have been his last movie.”

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“Bring Me the Disco King” isn’t Bowie’s last song (anymore), but through its lengthy verses and lengthier refrains you can see Bowie begin to plot his own demise. Take the last refrain, with his ominous command to “close me in the dark/let me disappear,” then punning on a release from jail and being freed from the album release cycle, as he’d earlier punned on “balance” (as a way of life and a bank statement). His abstruse lines of half-remembered decadence: Hunger City seen off in the distance, fading nights in a lost, divided Berlin. Killing time in the Seventies: wasting one’s life in nightclubs, or being victorious over time (temporarily, of course).

You promised me that the ending would be clear, he begins, but this isn’t a promise David Bowie would ever make. The lines about opening the door may reference Brel’s “My Death,” an old Bowie obsession, but if there was a death here, it proved temporary. “Bring Me the Disco King” sets the stage for a world in which David Bowie is only a memory or a legend, a world that’s waiting to be born. He’ll be okay, most likely, but he doesn’t know about you.

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Recorded: (drums) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (vocals, digital piano) ca. March-April 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Its first release was on 2 September 2003 as the “Loner Mix” (by Nine Inch Nails guitarist Danny Lohner), on the soundtrack to Underworld (Lakeshore LKS, 33781). Bowie’s version was released on 16 September 2003 on Reality.

Top: Jon Gosier, “Misfilter @ the Remote Lounge,” 2003. “My band performed at the Remote Lounge in New York in late 2003. The whole club is monitored by cameras which they post every night on a website that clubgoers go to to get pics of themselves.”


Reality

February 12, 2015

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Reality.
Reality (live, 2003).
Reality (live, 2004).

I prefer the enormous risks. There were indeed errors, there were inaccuracies, because a book that’s worth living with is the act of one voice, the act of a passion, the act of a persona.

George Steiner.

George Steiner was born in 1929 into an established Viennese Jewish family, the sort of multilingual, culturally distinguished clan (his mother’s great uncle had discovered a manuscript of Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck) that often wound up being murdered and dispossessed during the war.

The Steiners were luckier than many. On a business trip to New York in early 1940, his father was tipped off by an old Viennese friend (now procuring oil and equipment for the Nazis) to get his family out of France, where they’d moved in the Thirties. There had already been anti-Semitic marches on their street. Steiner recalled “the parades of people out there shouting, “Death to the Jews!” Papa comes home and says, “Up with those shades!” and takes me by the hand to look outside. I was fascinated, of course; any child would be. And he says, “You must never be frightened; what you’re looking at is called history.” I think that sentence may have formed my whole life.” They fled “in the last of the American boats” to New York.

He became a novelist, poet, professor and critic, shuttling from American to European to British universities and writing for the New Yorker. Thirty years after his family had escaped their possible slaughter in a concentration camp, he was asked to deliver the T.S. Eliot Memorial Lectures at the University of Kent in Canterbury.

Collected in book form, Steiner’s four lectures became In Bluebeard’s Castle: Some Notes Towards the Redefinition of Culture. Here Steiner ranged from the weight of the past on the present day to the argument that, post-World War I (“decisive reserves of intelligence, of nervous resilience, of political talent, had been annihilated“) and the Holocaust (“[Walter] Gieseking was playing the complete Debussy piano music on the nights when one could hear the screams of the people in the sealed railway cars at the station in Munich, on the way to Dachau“), the long, knotted chain of Western high culture that had extended back to the Athenian Greeks was now broken.

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The past became a lost country. Pindar, Virgil, Theocritus, Milton, Keats, Shelley, Auden and Yeats share a frame of reference, a common pool of metaphor and imagery. Steiner used Milton’s “Lycidas,” a poem whose analogies are hard for today’s reader to untangle without a handy page of references and copious footnotes. In the first stanza alone, “ivy,””myrtle,” and “laurel” all have specific traditional meanings, for which a ‘common’ reader immersed in “high” culture would’ve required no explication. Today only an academic would know them, and even then perhaps not. Prof. Cosma Shalizi, writing on Steiner’s book, said “laboriously, with guides like Steiner, I can follow [the poem] intellectually, but clearly it was meant to be immediate, visceral, second nature: and for a reader from a classical culture, that classical culture, it would be. I am not such a reader; and for most of my students, beyond the level of a “vague musicality,” Milton’s references might as well be to Mars.”

We were in a “post culture,” Steiner wrote. This wasn’t necessarily a tragedy. The grand sweep of Western civilization had required the subjection of entire cultures and the annihilation of vast numbers of animal species and environments in the name of “progress.” It might have been an evolutionary mistake: maybe we should have stayed in the trees. Leonard Cohen’s description of Mozart and Shakespeare as being merely “the nail polish on the claws” can seem apt enough most days.

We cannot turn back. We cannot choose the dreams of unknowing,” Steiner concluded. Instead, one should enjoy the fact that “it is enormously interesting to be alive at this cruel, late stage in Western affairs…It may well be that our post-culture will be marked by a readiness to endure rather than curtail the risks of thought. To be able to envisage possibilities of self-destruction, yet press home the debate with the unknown, is no mean thing.”

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We feel ourselves tangled in a constant, lashing web of crisis.

Steiner, “Tomorrow.”

We don’t have a God. We don’t really have a trust in any kind of politics. We are completely and totally at sea, philosophically. And I don’t think we want new things. I think we’re kind of scrounging around among the things we know to see if we can salvage some kind of civilization which will help us endure and survive into the future. We don’t need new. We are fucked. We’ve got enough new. Enough!…There is no structure, there is no plan. We are not evolving. We have to make the best of what we’ve got.

Bowie, Filter interview, 2003.

Why the long digression about Steiner and the death of Western civilization in an entry about a Bowie rock song? Well, it’s Bowie’s fault. He named In Bluebeard’s Castle one of his top 100 books, and in interviews for Reality, he kept bringing up Steiner to frame what he intended with the title track.

Steiner “was the first thing I read on post-modernism,” Bowie told Ingrid Sischy. “That book just confirmed for me that there was actually some kind of theory behind what I was doing with my work…I have an undiminished idea of variability. I don’t think there’s one truth, one absolute.”

What he found in Steiner was a vocabulary to explain his innate catholicity of taste, his love for Anthony Newley and Lou Reed, Little Richard and Steve Reich, The Beano and William Burroughs. There was never a “high” or “low” culture for Bowie, who’d absorbed the whole of Sixties London, steered by his brother Terry’s love for Beat novels and jazz, his former manager Kenneth Pitt’s access to the London theater scene and the influence of various showbiz pros like Lindsay Kemp, Lionel Bart and Lesley Duncan. Bowie ate up America in the early Seventies; in Berlin in 1976-78, he dressed as Christopher Isherwood and spent much of his free time in museums and night clubs.

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There were several of us dealing in this newly-found pluralistic vocabulary,” he recalled of the glam era to Ken Scrudato (Bryan Ferry and Eno were the other obvious examples). “This whole George Steiner-ism of life, you know? But I think that the world caught up really quickly and everybody is so totally aware of the kind of vocabulary that we were throwing around at the time, that one feels kind of superfluous now. I still enjoy what I do. But I don’t think what I do is terribly necessary…at all.”

So “Reality” is Bowie crediting his performing self in helping to create a world. When he was young, he’d enjoyed playing the vanguard of a civilizational collapse. At a press conference in 1972, he said he and Lou Reed “were probably predicting the end of an era….any society that allows people like Lou and I to become rampant is pretty well lost.” “They’re in the Seventies,” Neil Young had admired at the time. Bowie and Reed “don’t expect to live more than thirty years and they don’t care. And they don’t care.”

He enjoyed admitting to being a fraud. I’m not a real musician, he’d say. I’m not a real singer. He called himself a pastischist, a collagist, someone happy to throw up things he’d dug out from the ruins, not concerned with how long they’d stand upright. His songs were readymades, genre-mucks. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” married Jacques Brel to a Fifties doo-wop ballad, then threw in Peter Pan and James Brown. He nicked lyrics from short stories and films, scripted films from his songs, cannibalized the lost films into new songs. “I hid among the junk of wretched highs,” as he’d sing in “Reality,” punning on the idea of cultural detritus as being cheap dope. This was life in the post-culture: you’ll have live off the land more, so learn to compost.

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In 2003, Bowie said he’d done his job perhaps too well. Millennial culture had beaten him at his game. “Over the last 20 years, many of our ideas of the absolute, the ideas we all have held sacred, have been taken apart,” he told the New York Post. The reporter pushed back, saying “that seems slightly superficial.” To which Bowie smiled. “It’s flippant in a post-modern way.” And in a privileged way. “If you’re struggling to find a job and get food and shelter for your family, you’re going to have a very accurate idea of what reality is.”

But for the middle-class Westerner in the 21st Century, your life could be an anodyne version of David Bowie’s in 1972. You make a mash-up of X-Files dialogue over “99 Luftballoons,” post it on YouTube, maybe get picked up by Buzzfeed. David Bowie “is the medium for a conglomerate of statements and illusions,” Bowie had said in 1976, to get a rise out of People magazine.* Today much of our cultural life is the property, and the workings, of a literal conglomerate of statements and illusions: Tumblr, YouTube, Facebook, what have you. “David Bowie” is an algorithm.

Or an avatar. The cover of the CD is a saucer-eyed “anime” Bowie that, once you flip the cover open, is replaced by the “real” Bowie. Who is, of course, also a fake—it’s just the latest magazine cover that David Jones has made to represent himself in 2003. “There’s a fakeness to the cover that undermines” its title, Bowie told Anthony DeCurtis. “It’s the old chestnut. What is real and what isn’t? It’s actually about who’s stolen this world.”

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If we accept that we live in absolute chaos, it doesn’t look like futility anymore. It only looks like futility if you believe in this bang up structure we’ve created called ‘God’ and all. [But] all of these structures were self-created, just to survive, that’s all…It wasn’t handed down to us from anywhere…What people are beginning to feel, is that there’s a transition taking place. We’re leaving those old structures behind, whether we like it or not; they are all crumbling.

Bowie, to Ken Scrudato, 2003.

There was also a conservatism in Bowie’s statements. For all his fluid mercurial qualities, there was also an internal consistency to his work and a literate depth that he’d tried to disguise with flip interview statements. In 1995, he contrasted his filmmaker son Duncan’s dealings with art to his own:

He seems to be able to scan things so much quicker than myself. He can make sense of the surface of things. It gives him some foundation. My natural inclination, coming from a different time, is that I don’t just want a surface image; I want to read depth into everything,” Bowie said. “And that isn’t part of the vocabulary now in quite the same way as when I was young. My son can just whiz around it and get what he needs to get on to the next place. And it looks like lethargy. But there again, he’s now doing a doctorate in philosophy. (Laughs). So what I presumed was lethargy is not—it’s all being internalized. He just doesn’t assimilate things the way I think you’re supposed to.”

The title also referred to a common source of newspaper complaint at the time—the surge of “reality” television (Bowie wasn’t a fan, mocking American Idol as being “cruise ship entertainment”). “The word has become so devalued, it’s like it’s been damaged,” he said. “Reality TV” was, of course, nothing like “reality”—its contestants were often would-be actors, its conflicts were scripted and spun out of crafty editing. What reality TV represented—replacing unionized writing jobs with freelance “creators,” and using unpaid non-actors instead of unionized actors requiring scale payments—reflected 21st Century economics as much as it did any new cultural coarseness.

But again, this showed a growing sophistication among the public. If the glam era was the first pop era meant for kids fluent in the language of pop, the popularity of reality TV suggested that TV viewers had grown bored with the old cop/office/family life TV show scenarios. They wanted to see “real” people, who were playing to the cameras, at least for a novelty.

For Bowie, all of these qualms reflected the old generational terrors of “Kooks” and “Oh! You Pretty Things.” The kids keep coming, keep crowding you up. No matter how hard you try, you wind up obsolete. Even David Bowie?

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As for the song itself, among the first he wrote for the album, “Reality” seems too flip, loud and pummeling a track to have to embody all of this cultural hand-wringing. Built on a typical Bowie volley between two major chords (D and E for verses, C and F# for refrains) and given a lyric that mashes “Teenage Wildlife,” “Rebel Rebel,” “Hallo Spaceboy,” and “Beat of Your Drum,” it sets up Bowie as an aging rake, lusting for youth in the mirror. There was a touch of Monty Python in it: tragic youth was going down on me! Well, I swear—hoo! hoo!–Yes I swear!

Deeper in, the song starts shaking open—the guitars seem in open warfare against it, the beat is remorseless. The refrain’s a boast of a man about to walk off the set—whatever you say kids, I got there before you—with Bowie’s vicious run of ha-ha-ha-has feeling like slaps to the face. And then he gives as much of an epitaph as he may ever offer:

I still don’t remember how this happened
I still don’t get the ‘wherefores’ and the ‘whys’**
I look for sense but I get next to nothing

Then in a brief acoustic aside that reminds you of the pause for breath in “Big Brother,” just before the final conversion:

I’ve been right and I’ve been wrong
Now I’m back where I started from…

A drum fill, and the guitars knock him off into space again.

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Once upon a time, when “Reality” was sequenced near the end of Bowie’s ‘last’ album, the title track could seem the work of a man trying to settle his long-overdue accounts, and finding that he was just as broke as when he started.

That a life of perpetual movement and change is just as pre-determined and fruitless as one where you stayed in one place and hunkered down. That the David Jones who stayed in Beckenham, watching Survivor with his grandchildren in his living room in 2002, may have regarded post-modern life much the same as the pop singer who was promoting his 23rd album and talking about George Steiner.

But Bowie’s having a blast in “Reality,” both in its guitar-crazy recording and its raucous live performances —throwing himself around in the song, clowning, making an ass of himself, refusing the dignity that the aging are supposed to take up, like a post-retirement hobby. If he’s never done good things, bad things, or anything out of the blue, he doesn’t give a toss. In a post-culture, “progress” is for suckers, and Bowie always played the grifter.

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

* People, regarded by the likes of George Trow as the vanguard of a surface-level celebrity culture being hatched in the Seventies, now seems quaint whenever you see it in the newsstand, desperately trying to catch the eye with some Kardashian headline. It’s another pioneer made obsolete by the world it discovered.

** A possible Steiner-esque joke. “Wherefore” means much the same as “why,” but as anyone who’s seen an American TV commercial referencing Romeo and Juliet can attest, the former word is often taken to mean “where are you?,” with the Juliet actress peering off her balcony, looking for her beau.

Top: Bowie, a life in press conferences and interviews: 2004, 1977, 1983, 1987, 1972, 1999, 1974, 1976.


Try Some, Buy Some

February 2, 2015

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Try Some, Buy Some (Ronnie Spector, 1971).
Try Some, Buy Some (George Harrison, 1973).
Try Some, Buy Some (Bowie).
Try Some, Buy Some (Bowie, live, 2003).
Try Some, Buy Some (Bowie, live, 2003).

Promoting Reality in 2003, Bowie took pains to say that one of his cover recordings, “Try Some, Buy Some,” was only an inadvertent homage to its composer, the recently-deceased George Harrison. “For me it was a Ronnie Spector song,” he said. “It never really occurred to me that I was actually covering a George Harrison song…it’s rather fitting and quite lovely that it is an unwitting tribute to George.”

Harrison died in November 2001, the capstone to a dreadful year. Having fought off throat cancer in 1997, he was subsequently beaten and stabbed by a psychotic housebreaker. Friends like Keith Richards blamed the attack (which was close to fatal: Harrison had five stab wounds, one of which punctured his lung) for leaving Harrison weakened against a renewed bout of lung and brain cancer, which swiftly killed him. So, essentially, half of the members of the 20th Century’s biggest pop group were murdered at their homes by obsessed fans.

Harrison was the Beatles’ house moralist (to use a Philip Roth line, he was their “unchaste monk”). His was the voice interrupting the party to say: you’re really only very small and life goes on within you and without you. A lifetime is so short: a new one can’t be bought. Try thinking more, if just for your own sake. The farther one travels, the less one knows. And the last-ever recorded Beatles track, a waltz on egoism: Even those tears/I me MINE I me MINE I me MINE.

A bus driver’s son from working-class Liverpool, Harrison was a pop emperor by 21. In the late Sixties, he tried to ground his wealth and fame in some working philosophical system, a sort of Hare Krishna stoicism. By middle age he was more interested in his gardening than making records (it showed), and of all the Beatles, he treated the band’s legend with the least reverence: The Rutles is in part snarky secret autobiography. The three Beatles songwriter voices were autobiographer (Lennon), novelist (McCartney) and, with Harrison, sermonizer. Had they been a medieval troupe, Harrison would have been the friar who lectured on Hell in breaks between the acrobats and hurdy-gurdy acts. And then pulled a toad out of his sleeve.

For [Harrison], there is a belief in some kind of system,” Bowie told Paul du Noyer in 2003 (Harrison had chanted ‘Hare Krishna’ at his attacker that night, though mainly to distract him). “But I really find that hard. Not on a day to day basis,because there are habits of life that have convinced me there is something solid to believe in. But when I become philosophical, in those ‘long, lonely hours’ it’s the source of all my frustrations, hammering away at the same questions I’ve had since I was 19. Nothing has really changed for me.”

Beatles fans could find Harrison’s spiritualism trying, too—my father tended to skip the needle over “Within You Without You” when he played Sgt. Pepper‘s second side. And yes, there’s something grating about a millionaire (one of whose best songs griped about the marginal tax rate of Harold Wilson’s Britain) banging on about the illusory nature of material life while living in a mansion, or decrying the false wisdom of drugs after having spent years of his life tripping.

But as the Beatles finally become installed in the past (I imagine we’ve one more commemorative decade ahead of us), Harrison seems their most fundamentally sound member, the band’s reality principle, and, at his best, their most profound writer (see “Long Long Long,” a torch song for God). From his earliest to last songs, he kept at the same home truths. Life is brief, we spend the great part of it worrying over pointless things, we lie to ourselves and each other too much, everything we love will die, and we ultimately know nothing about existence. So why not try to make peace with your god, or at least spend your days gardening?

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Harrison wrote “Try Some, Buy Some” during the All Things Must Pass sessions of 1970. It was one of his songs about maya, the Hindu/Krishna concept that much of the perceived world is illusory and that reality is only found at the spiritual level. Maya is ever-changing, and as such the cause of human unhappiness and sorrow. Or, to ground “Try Some” in provincial terms, material life is a funfair. You go for a visit, overeat, go on the rides, buy some trinkets. But one day you have to go home. So in “Try Some,” the verses look back to the Sixties—the drugs, the sex, meeting “big fry”–while the refrains turn to the future, a humbled reconciliation with God. The last refrain finds Harrison back at the funfair, but in an evangelist’s booth: “try some” spirituality on for size.

The song was a platonic ideal of Harrison’s compositions, his labored style marked by clockwork chord progressions in which he used “chord changes as expressive, rather than functional, devices” (Ian MacDonald). His songs seemed like orreries, moving in slow, weighty orbits. “The extreme example of Harrison’s circular melodic style, [“Try Some” seems] to snake through an unending series of harmonic steps,” as Simon Leng wrote. Composed on piano and organ (rare for Harrison, who had Klaus Voormann play the bass keys), which Harrison said inspired all the “weird chords,” its vertebrae was a descending chromatic bassline, hitting every semitone from E to B, and an another descending harmonic sequence in which Harrison starts on A minor and corkscrews down to D major (Am-Ab-G-F#-E-A-D).

As if aiming to make the song more ungainly, Harrison gave it a seesawing top melody and set it an unforgiving 3/4 time and in a key that Ronnie Spector, for whom it was intended, found uncomfortable to sing in.* “I know you can hit those notes,” her husband and producer Phil Spector told her, while vetoing her suggestion of using vibrato (“Vibrato is Sixties. This is 1971.“).

Ronnie, who flew into London to record what was supposed to be the lead-off single for her debut solo LP, said she first thought Harrison’s song was a joke, like the B-side jam “Tandoori Chicken” (the studio’s takeaway order). She didn’t understand a word of the lyric (nor did he, its composer reportedly said) and found it hard to sing, but she was a trooper, mastering the song’s jarring rhythms and hitting all of the high notes (throwing in her trademark “Be My Baby” hook at 1:23).

“Try Some” was a colossal flop, only hitting #77 in the US and not even charting in Britain (some DJs favored “Tandoori Chicken”). Its disastrous performance killed Ronnie’s solo album, with her husband, who believed he’d recorded a spiritual masterpiece unappreciated by Philistines, falling deeper into alcoholism and paranoia. Some of Ronnie’s supporters found the choice of debut single ridiculous, a clunky Harrison downer that would’ve sunk anyone forced to sing it, and blamed Phil for sabotaging her comeback. (Ronnie, who’d been kept a virtual prisoner by Phil in the late Sixties, escaped his mansion on foot soon after “Try Some” was issued).

One of the few who bought “Try Some” at the time was a Beckenham songwriter with a taste for obscurities. “I got [the single] because I was totally ga-ga over Ronnie Spector,” Bowie recalled in 2003. “I always thought she was absolutely fantastic.”**

trys

Bowie had wanted to cover “Try Some, Buy Some” for years, and he’d been taken with Ronnie Spector’s sound as far back as “Teenage Wildlife.” “We were pretty true to the original arrangement but the overall atmosphere is somewhat different. It’s a dense piece,” he said of his version.

He meant to free the song from Spector’s over-arrangement and let it have its say in a more subtle, forgiving setting. Unfortunately this wound up being a cheap-sounding Korg Trinity backing track that possibly survived from the demo stages. There are some nice touches—Bowie’s baritone saxophone leading the march to the basement, and a new two-note guitar hook, which seems an attempt to distract the ear from all the harmonic grinding going on underneath—but the piece comes off both chintzy and too much in the shadow of the original recording. It attempts grandeur on the cheap. Bowie doesn’t try to out-sing Spector (he couldn’t, at this point) and he takes the song in a comfortable range, where Harrison had strained at the top of his range, giving his version a desperate quality—Harrison doesn’t quite believe in what he’s selling. There’s little yearning in Bowie’s version, but far more sadness. It’s a man recounting a lost battle.

So we’ve reached the last studio-recorded Bowie cover of this survey. This blog has been unforgiving to many of his covers—“Friday On My Mind,” “Across the Universe,” “Kingdom Come,” “God Only Knows,” “If There Is Something,” to pick a few. And it’s fair to say that few Bowie fans approach a new album with the hope of “maybe there’ll be a lot of covers on this one!”

What drove him to do so many? Bowie’s always been a pop fan, and his covers were often fan tributes (fan fictions, even)—a key to understanding Pin Ups is that Bowie’s pantomiming all of these butch Sixties singers as well as playing the gawky fans dancing along to the records at home, typically in the same performance. There’s a common thread of tastelessness in Bowie covers, and it’s in part owed to this—Bowie gets so wrapped up in how much he loves these songs that he doesn’t care what he sounds like, and he’s too much in love to change the songs to suit his strengths.

Some of it was lab work—Bowie picking apart other songwriters to see how they’d done it, and absconding with their best bits (so he did a Kinks cover on Pin Ups and then used various Ray Davies tricks on The Idiot and Low). His decades’ worth of covering “Waiting for the Man” and “White Light/White Heat” suggested he was trying to hypnotize himself into writing like Lou Reed. “Nite Flights” is an offering to a household saint.

By the early 2000s, Bowie was ticking off things he’d meant to tribute years before, which gives the last round of Heathen and Reality covers poignancy and looseness. “Pablo Picasso” and “Cactus” are hoots, with Bowie grandly refusing to act his age; “Gemini Spaceship” and “I’ve Been Waiting for You” tip the hat to long-standing, multi-generational influences.

And “Try Some, Buy Some”? Bowie’s favorite Beatle, or at least the Beatle who’d most governed him, had been his friend John Lennon (Bowie never had much time for McCartney, except stealing a few tricks for songs like “Oh! You Pretty Things” and “Right On Mother”). But in Harrison, a songwriter who, like Bowie, had a long public apprenticeship (see “You Like Me Too Much”), Bowie also found affinities. Reaching his mid-fifties, Bowie found Harrison’s spirituality alluring, even if he could never bring himself to become a believer (or even a gardener).

So “Try Some, Buy Some,” an oddball’s tribute to a forgotten single, sits there near the end of Reality, taking up space on an already-overlong album, and slightly spoiling the mood. Harrison would have approved: the song was never meant to go down easy.

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

* Harrison also wrote for Spector “You,” which was catchy and well-suited to her voice. She recorded a version in 1971 but it was never released (Harrison used the backing track for his version). Looking back in 1999, Ronnie said “Try Some” had become one of her favorite singles. It “was done to make me happy, and it did. It might not have been made for the right reasons, but it’s a good record.”

** Not merely as a singer. “She’s a terrific looking woman,” Bowie said.

Top: Ara Oshagan, from “Traces of Identity: An Insider’s View of the LA Armenian Community, 2000-2004.”

Hype notice: There’s now a “Book” section of the blog (see top, next to “About”). This page will serve as a place for pre-order links, readings, notices about any possible interviews, that sort of thing.


Days

January 26, 2015

03france

Days.
Days (live, 2003).
Days (live, 2004).

Tucked midway through Reality, “Days” is a sunny self-evisceration. Bowie’s obvious reference was the Kinks’ “Days,” the most generous-seeming breakup song ever written. Ray Davies is heartbroken and may never get over it, but he’s grateful for the brief span of happiness he was allotted. Yet the memory of his happiness is all he has left, and his boundless gratitude has an obsessional quality.

Not so much here. Bowie’s playing a cad, someone who’s taken his lover for granted and only now (he’s facing death perhaps (“there’s little left of me“), or maybe his partner’s finally wised up) feels any twinges of guilt. It’s an egoist’s regret. “All I’ve done, I’ve done for me/ All you gave, you gave for free,” his sings in the essential verse. “I gave nothing in return.” The refrain’s a statement of fact—he’s racked up such an emotional debt that he can never repay it—and by the bridge he’s worked up the nerve to ask for more.

Feinting at G minor in verses only to steady itself in F major in the refrains, “Days” begins with a modest arrangement—three acoustic guitar tracks, a lead guitar peeking in every other bar until settling down to arpeggiate, and a conga/kick drum rhythm. The second verse carts in drums and a piano line, soon taken up by synthesizer, that’s twisted by Bowie’s baritone saxophone. The bridge (which the whole song seems to be leading up to) has a descending bassline,* an uneasy bed of synthetic strings and a small gallery of Bowie voices. It’s over in a wink, with Bowie sweetly atoning for his past and future crimes.

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

* Guided downward by the bari sax: “(Bb)my crazy brain (Bb/A)entangles (Gm) pleading for your (Bb/F)gentle voice.”

Top: James Burns, “La Noue Montreuil, Paris suburb,” 2003.


The Loneliest Guy

January 20, 2015

The Loneliest Guy.
The Loneliest Guy (live, 2003).
The Loneliest Guy (Parkinson, 2003).
The Loneliest Guy (live, 2004).

A very despairing piece of work,” Bowie said of “The Loneliest Guy” in 2003. Its subject is “a guy qualifying his entirely hermetic, isolated existence by saying ‘actually I’m a lucky guy. I’m not really alone—I just have myself to look after.'”

This type, a man cooped in his room and subsisting on art and memory, is a constant in Bowie’s writing. Go back through the songs and his sad face keeps turning up. The failed artist/academic who lives above an Austrian grocer; the man who carries a razor in case of depression; the coked-up magus trapped in his circle, overlooking the ocean; the assorted shut-ins of Low, like the girl with grey eyes and the man in the electric blue room; old Algeria Touchshriek. If one end of the Bowie spectrum is the charismatic on stage, the “Loneliest Guy” is the other: Bowie’s deep ultraviolet range. An isolate, a man unable to communicate, to get out of his head; one who expires for lack of an audience.

This wan, lonely character was as “real” as any Ziggy Stardust archetype, and as much of an autobiographical figure that Bowie ever offered. Talking to Anthony DeCurtis in 2003, he said that finally, in high middle age and having become a parent again, “[I] don’t have that sense of loneliness that I had before, which was very, very strong. It became a subtext for a lot of the things I wrote.”

So “The Loneliest Guy” sloughs off an old self, or does it? The man who said everything was in its place, who was utterly content, was perhaps projecting a bit. The “loneliest guy” here flicks through old pictures on his hard drive, poisoned by brighter memories (“the notion that our ideas are inhabited by ghosts and that there’s nothing in our philosophy—that all the big ideas are empty containers” (see “Reality”)). Had he really been boxed up at last? If so, what would it mean for Bowie’s songwriting, when the self closest to his muse was no longer in service?

anarchitekton

In the same interview (with Interview), Bowie began to ramble through his thoughts, offering a taste of the sort of thing he tells his musicians, like “think Impressionism” to a saxophone player. He said his loneliest guy lives in a decayed, empty place, “a city taken over by weeds.” In particular, he lives in Brasilia, the modernist artificial city, built from scratch in the Sixties to be the center of Brazilian government and commerce. The city of a future that never quite came, its neighborhoods built in grids, its squares full of modernist stadiums and concert halls. It was Godard’s Alphaville in the Brazilian highlands. For art critics like Robert Hughes, Brasilia was “miles of jerry-built platonic nowhere infested with Volkswagens. This, one may fervently hope, is the last experiment of its kind. The utopian buck stops here.”

Brasilia was “the perfect standard for an empty, godless universe,” Bowie said. “The architect Oscar Niemeyer designed all these places thinking that they were going to be filled with millions of people and now there are about 200,000 people living there, so the weeds and the grass are growing back up through the stones of this brilliantly modernistic city. It’s a set of ideas…being taken back over again by the jungle.”

This wasn’t really true about Brasilia.* It suggested more Bowie’s old rotting Hunger City, the modernist grid turned dystopian playground, or the capitalist wasteland of “Thru’ These Architect’s Eyes.” This aside, the metaphor of a rotting Brasilia, a great modernist plan being eaten by nature, works as a description of the track itself. “The Loneliest Guy” is a song collapsing from within, moving as if sleep-stung, occasionally rousing to life, then guttering out again. Take how its remote E-flat minor key is woken by bright intrusions from E major (“steam (E) under floor (Ebm)”). The song yearns to pull free in its third verse (“all the pages that have turned...”) until a Eb minor chord snuffs out the coup (on a precisely-timed “oh”).

It’s such a lugubrious song, and Bowie’s character is such a colossal sad sack, that its miseries border on the darkly comical. It calls to mind Steve Martin’s The Lonely Guy, set in a New York where lonelyhearts congregate on city roofs to holler their exes’ names, who eat dinner alone with a spotlight trained on them and who politely queue on the Manhattan Bridge to jump into the East River.

Flavored by waves of David Torn’s atmospherics (it’s possible Bowie thought of the Pretty Things’ “Loneliest Person,” built on arpeggiated acoustic guitar), the song was built on Mike Garson’s piano. During the Reality sessions in New York, Garson played Yamaha digital piano (owned by Bowie, and loaned to Garson during the 2003-04 tour), then went home to California with the MIDI files to re-cut his parts on “my 9-foot Yamaha Disklavier, recording as [the MIDI] played back,” Garson recalled to Mix. So at mixing, Bowie and Visconti could choose between “synthetic” or “real” Yamaha on each track and picked analog for this one.

It was one of the most gorgeously-recorded of the Reality tracks, with the guitars serving as a string section, Garson’s chords resounding into deep space and Bowie hanging upon every note he sings, as if he can’t bear to let them go.

Recorded: (lead guitars, lead and backing vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York; (piano) ca. March-April 2003, Garson’s home studio, Bell Canyon, CA. Released 16 September 2003 on Reality.

* As per the 2010 IBGE census, over 2.4 million people live in Brasilia, making it the fourth-largest city in the country.

Top: Konstantin Maximov, “Copenhagen,” 2003; Jordi Colomer, Anarchitekton: Brasilia (2003).


Fly

January 12, 2015

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Fly.

Written seemingly as a counterpart to “She’ll Drive the Big Car,” “Fly” (a desperate husband’s tale, with another A major refrain) was knocked down to a bonus track. By this point in Bowie’s career, one expects this sort of thing. Given a choice, he’ll always cut a self-penned track from an album before a questionable cover (see “It Ain’t Easy,” “Across the Universe,” “Bang Bang,” etc.).

That said, “Fly” would have been a tough fit on Reality, even more than “Queen of All the Tarts.” Despite its depressive lyrical scenario, it’s a cheery track, a clatter-fest in a hurry to get somewhere. In keeping with Bowie’s apparent desire to sneakily remake Never Let Me Down, “Fly” is one of the most “Eighties” Bowie tracks since, well, the Eighties. The main guitar riff (Carlos Alomar, see below) seems a bit derived from Devo’s “Whip It,”* while a holiday camp keyboard is just one voice in a mix overrun by stray instruments. There are even some little party bits, like the “dying for the WEEKEND” tag.

A father’s in his driveway weeping in his car, watching the TV play to an empty room in his house. His wife is bored or distracted, his son might be on drugs. The kids down the street are playing “on their decks”** in the garage, working up a set for an “all-night rave” (seems like Bowie hasn’t been getting out too much in the early 2000s). None of this seems that tragic, even the verse about some kid overdosing. It’s more like Stewart Copeland’s “On Any Other Day“—a suburban dystopia played for laughs.

It’s fun to see Bowie back in suburbia again, for what would be one of his last visits. As a kid in Bromley, like the father in “Fly,” he took refuge in his mind. He stayed up in his room and read Beat novels, looked for UFOs, played records, scrawled in notebooks, practiced astral projections. He once described his teenage home as having to pass through purgatory (his parents’ living room) to get upstairs into his private haven. Dana Gillespie recalled how cold the Jones’ house was—she found it a loveless place, a house without life, as if Bowie’s parents were actors who went off stage when no one was around.

So Bowie stayed in his room until he could fly. Away he went: Haddon Hall, Chelsea, Los Angeles. Berlin, Montreux, New York. As Momus wrote, much of these “last” Bowie albums are Bowie regarding his aging contemporaries as one would creatures in a zoo. What’s it like to have failed, to have fed on dreams but starved instead? Even his own success had nearly snuffed out a few times. He’d rolled the right number, but what if he hadn’t?

Hence the refrain of “Fly,” Bowie taking grandiose refuge in his dreams (in the last refrain, an unexpected D# minor chord (“but I can fly”) rattles the sequence, making Bowie alter his flight path to stay in the air). Dreams are in a provisional tense, offering that the present isn’t real, that the future isn’t set. But dreams are lies, of course. Those that come true are simply lies we’ve willed ourselves (and other people) into believing.

alomar

In spring 1974, a young British singer/songwriter met a guitarist at a session in New York the singer was producing for Lulu. Bowie found in Carlos Alomar his ambassador to the New York R&B and funk scenes; Alomar saw Bowie as a way off the R&B circuit.

The timing was perfect. Having split with Mick Ronson, Bowie needed a new sous-chef. But he didn’t want another Ronson (if he had, he’d just have kept Ronson). He wanted someone who kept behind the scenes (no worries that Alomar would get more fan mail than Bowie) and who could handle new twists in Bowie’s songwriting. To Ronson, Bowie typically presented lyrics, top melodies and even guitar or basslines—at the least, Bowie would offer a complete chord sequence. Ronson’s role was to smooth, kick up, embellish and refine, to find counterpoints and add effects, to broaden and sweeten the song, to give it a public face.

By Station to Station and Low, Alomar was charged with creating the basics of a song. Bowie would offer some chords, a provisional title, some mood directions, and let Alomar take it from there. Bowie would monitor him rigorously and approve or discard whatever Alomar came up with, and much of the work was now in “post-production” (Alomar rarely heard Bowie’s vocals until the record came out). But essentially this was songwriting as delegation: Bowie as foreman/engineer, Alomar as shop steward. Scott Walker once described Bowie’s work as being something like a factory: He comes up with the goods and makes sure of delivery all down the line. Bowie couldn’t have done this without Alomar, who was his translator, research team, legwork man and studio engine.

Nearly becoming a victim of Bowie’s changing tastes in the early Eighties, Alomar persevered, playing on Tonight and Never Let Me Down, touring Glass Spider. He hung on until Outside and the subsequent tour, which finally made him know he was done. Even after that, he added a few guitar lines to Heathen and Reality tracks. Towards the end, Bowie spoke of Alomar a bit coldly (“Carlos is always good value for money,” he said on a webchat in 2001), and the two haven’t reconnected yet in Bowie’s current revival.

Alomar’s lead riff on “Fly” is barbed with hooks, as always, but it’s a rather hollow last act, like Ronson’s farewell solo on “I Feel Free” in 1993. No matter. What’s important is that Alomar got a last act, and that he’s slowly won the recognition he deserves. Let’s hope “Fly” isn’t the end of Bowie and Alomar’s days together. But if it is, hail and farewell, Carlos Alomar: Bowie’s finest collaborator.

Recorded: (rhythm tracks, vocals) January-February 2003, (lead guitars, lead and backing vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Released 16 September 2003 on the 2-CD version of Reality.

* Nicholas Pegg suggested the riff owes a bit to Abba’s “On and On and On” too.

** See LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge,” which Bowie almost certainly heard before making this. “I’m losing my edge…to the kids whose footsteps I hear when they get on the decks.”

Top: James Welling, “Apartments, West Los Angeles,” 2003; Carlos Alomar teaching kids music at the Summer Science and Rainbow Camp, Anatolia College, 2011.


She’ll Drive the Big Car

January 5, 2015

big car

She’ll Drive the Big Car.
She’ll Drive the Big Car (Trafic.Musique, 2003).
She’ll Drive the Big Car (live, 2003).
She’ll Drive the Big Car (live, 2004).

Reality is Bowie’s open revision of past missteps, having another go at sounds he’d heard in his head in 1987 or 1991 that he hadn’t quite captured on record. So some of the album’s “public” songs, the various 9/11 pieces, come off as Never Let Me Down or Tin Machine tracks as revised by a more mature, or at least more tasteful, artist.

There were also a few “character” songs in which Bowie revived a lyrical conceit of “…hours.” The latter was intended (or so he said at the time) as a midlife malaise album, with songs whose perspectives were those of “friends” who’d lost their way, disappointed men facing 50 with little to show for it.

Reality offered a pairing of desperate husband (demoted to a bonus track, see next entry) and enraged wife. “She’ll Drive the Big Car” concerns a former free spirit, now barnacled with husband and kids, who speeds along Riverside Drive in Manhattan, wondering if she should just cut the wheel and plunge into the Hudson River.

All her plans have been disassembled by her thoughtless boyfriend,” Bowie told Interview. The cad was supposed to “take her back to the old bohemian life,” back to the street life. But instead he stands her up, like the “friend” of the girl in “Life on Mars?” At least that girl still had the movies. Here, the woman’s left stranded at home (introducing the song live, he said of its protagonist: “she lives in the wrong part of town but she wants to live in an even badder, wronger part of town”) “She’s stuck with this middle class family and is absolutely, desperately unhappy as she’s peeling along Riverside Drive,” he said. “In my mind she just swings it off to the left,* and takes the whole lot down.”

Her trap’s reflected in the verse’s chord structure. (As opposed to his usual way of rigging a song together in the studio, “She Drives the Big Car” was “specifically a written piece,” Bowie said.) The home chord, F major, is limbo. The verse starts on the dominant chord, C major (a hope of escape: “back in millennium/meant racing to the light”), slides down to the subdominant chord, Bb major (things don’t work out: she “melt[s] home”) and ends with her circling yet again on Riverside (F).** The refrains escape to A major until, in the last bars, the F chord returns her to stasis again. It’s “Always Crashing in the Same Car“: life as a perpetual JG Ballard car crash, every day in the same car.

As with most Bowie third-person studies, there are some autobiographical asides (a cardinal Bowie rule is that no one is as interesting as him, particularly fictional people). Take the shaky falsetto in which he sings “sad, sad soul”: an uncanny throwback to the cocaine-frayed vocals on Young Americans. And the refrain of the song-within-the-song, the track blasting on the radio station as the woman drives like a demon on Riverside, is the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” (just a little bit LOUDER NOW! …a little bit softer now…), lines that Bowie had sung as a kid in his cover of “Louie Louie Go Home.” (Bowie also plays his “amateur” harmonica for the first time since the Eighties). If the depressed wife is blasting the song to distract herself (“she’s turning the radio up high so she doesn’t have to think anymore,” Bowie said), it’s also Bowie bewitching himself with an old lost voice.

In the early 2000s, Bowie kept telling interviewers how happy he was in his current life. That said, this was a man who’d given up drugs, booze, cigarettes and (apparently) extramarital relationships, and whose life now revolved around child-raising (he joked that his most-heard song of ’03 was “The Wheels on the Bus”). So it’s not difficult to imagine some little part of him wishing he could chuck it all away and move back to Berlin, take up with an art collective of mad, attractive young people and drink champagne for breakfast. Unlike most of us, Bowie still could do this. If his is a life of quiet desperation, it’s of his own design.

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With some of the more striking images of his later years (“love lies like a dead clown***/on a shabby yellow lawn,” or the way Bowie plays with the name “Riverside Drive,” turning it into a sylvan place with “cormorants and leaves“), the lyric keeps itself open, disclosing little. Who’s the “Jessica” that the woman keeps thinking about? Her daughter, who she might kill in a car crash, or herself, staring back at her in the rear-view mirror? Who’s sitting behind—her husband or her lover? Is the big car a hearse?

The track was built like a dollhouse, rooms within rooms, each piece set in place: brisk acoustic guitar work, esp. in the verses, and a snaky, twanging figure mixed left in refrains (and little feedback burst at 3:22, like a rip in the song); the synthesizer bed that sounds like a harmonium, and the yearning counter-melody in the second verse; the marimba fills; the snare drum hiccup Sterling Campbell plays to signal the refrains, and how his cymbals are mixed to sound as if he’s shaking chains (also, the perfectly-timed handclaps in the refrains). There’s even Bowie’s baritone saxophone, barely noticeable in the verses, just a dark layer in the foundation.

Most impressive were the harmonies, one of the finest vocal arrangements on a Bowie track since Young Americans. It was a tapestry of Bowie, Gail Ann Dorsey and Catherine Russell, with Bowie as frantic advocate and Dorsey and Russell, with their long-held notes and their vaults up an octave, as ecstatic assurance.

Tracks like “She’ll Drive the Big Car” made it seem such a shame that Bowie “retired” after Reality, as he sounded as if he still had a smoldering heap of unfinished business. In 2013, he proved he did.

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

* She’s driving up Riverside from downtown and, if she goes for it, she’ll aim for the river by cutting across oncoming traffic. The first verse notes she’s “northbound on Riverside,” but the second refrain mentions the Lower East Side intersection of Ludlow and Grand St. and going “south along the Hudson.”

** Both C and Bb chords shift to major sevenths (“sick with fear,” “melted home”) before giving way to the succeeding chord.

*** Yeah, yeah, I know the printed lyric says “cloud” but “dead clown” is such a superior image that I refuse to believe he didn’t sing it.

Top: Thomas Struth, “The Richter Family,” Koln, 2002.


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