Reality

February 12, 2015

db

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.

tumblr_nge7ow3RA81qaszffo1_500

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.”

73press

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.

83mrlawrence

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.

87press

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.”

decrca72b

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?

99netaid

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.

74cav

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.

76-04-26-stockholm-press-1

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

03Traces09

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?

trysome

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

03apts

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.

R-670674-1237574286

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.


Happy Xmas (Blog Is (almost) Over, If You Want It)

December 22, 2014

bowie-xmas

Bowie’s 2013 Xmas “Elvis” Message.
Peace on Earth/The Little Drummer Boy.
Peter and the Wolf.
The Snowman.
Feed the World.

It’s become an annual tradition. I put up a Christmas post and say “well, this looks like it’s the last Xmas post on the blog” and then the thing keeps going for another year. Some of this is due to a slowdown in the posting rate, some of it to Bowie’s penchant for releasing new songs. But barring another Bowie album in 2015, this is the last Christmas post of the blog’s “primary” life. (It will have an afterlife of sorts, and so probably more Xmas posts.)

Next year will see the end of Reality, the “gap” years, The Next Day and (yes, a PLUG: GET USED TO ‘EM) the publishing of Rebel Rebel in March.

Previous Xmas posts have reshuffled a small set of Bowie holiday material: the 1977 Bing Crosby duet, his intro to The Snowman (1982), his cameo on the Band Aid B-side “Feed the World,” and Peter and the Wolf  because it’s fun and sort-of wintry. (Some links above will transport you back to past Christmases, like a Narnian wardrobe.) But this year we have a new toy in the pile: Bowie’s Elvis impression of a holiday greeting, broadcast last Boxing Day on Radio 6’s This Is Radio Clash.

Thanks to all readers, past and present. Thanks especially to all commenters, who manage to be civil, funny, sharp and enthusiastic, qualities that much Internet interaction often lacks.

Happy holidays: see you early in 2015.

Snow Bowie GIF from Consequence of Sound.


Queen Of All the Tarts (Overture)

December 19, 2014

queen is dead of all the tarts

Queen Of All the Tarts (Overture).

As its recording was used as pre-show music for much of the Reality Tour, was “Queen Of All the Tarts (Overture)” once intended as an album intro? If so, its demotion to bonus track was likely owed to sequencing—the Queen doesn’t sit comfortably amidst the more common tracks.

A track whose centerpiece is a two-tiered (possibly two-fingered) synth solo courtesy of the artiste himself, “Queen of All the Tarts” features the usual Reality impasto of guitar overdubs (Earl Slick, David Torn and Gerry Leonard all seem to make an appearance: is Torn playing the militant, jabbing line towards the outro?). The bassist (Mark Plati or Tony Visconti) sounds like he’s downed a few espressos; Sterling Campbell tracks in some thudding tom fills (there are also low-mixed sleigh bells).

Its lyric’s a repeated one-line refrain, essentially a vocalized keyboard line, with odd two-note harmonies (a multi-tracked Bowie souped in with Gail Ann Dorsey and Catherine Russell). It comes off like Bowie’s version of Queen’s “Flash’s Theme.” And don’t forget the parenthetical: if it’s an Overture, for which glam opera? It’s as if Bowie’s written an intro piece for a younger self, casting the song back in time. So Queen Bitch walks again, having grown more regal, if wearier, in her waning years.

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.

Top: Jonathan Monk, Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before, 2003 (MoMA).

Book hype footnote: pre-orders available now, see top right box. Non US/UK people: check out Book Depository, which allegedly ships free worldwide.


Looking For Water

December 16, 2014

looking for water

Looking For Water.
Looking For Water (A Reality Tour, 2003).
Looking For Water (live, 2004).

Asked about “Looking For Water” in 2003, Bowie said he’d started with the cartoon-strip image of a man lost in the desert, crawling around under the boiling sun hoping to see palm trees, signifying an oasis. Instead he spies in the distance a row of oil derricks—an American perversion of deliverance, machines pumping oil from the earth, not trees sustained by water underground.

The last of the set of post-9/11 songs he’d written for Reality, “Looking For Water” moves the setting from a numbed, burned Manhattan to an anonymous Middle East country, which would answer for the crime (regardless of its guilt) for the rest of the decade. The conceit is some Manhattanite wandering in the desert, a few traces of his old life still in his head (a piece of “The Star Spangled Banner,” “Autumn Leaves”): an innocent abroad, wandering through a hell of his own making, wandering in circles.

A “virtually looped, chordwise” (Bowie) song that shuttles between D major and F# minor* throughout and whose structure is a piled-up set of agitated verses and guitar breaks, it became a tapestry of guitar tracks, primarily by David Torn and Earl Slick. Starting with a single left-mixed guitar keeping to its top three strings, the set soon expands to include a blunt Slick retort, a descending main riff doubled on bass (Mark Plati, tracing a Tony Visconti bassline from the demo) and some ferocious counterpoint figures, as if Torn is trying to rip his way out of the song (starting around 1:40). Sterling Campbell is a piston engine, giving a punishing crack to his snare on every beat. And the fever breaks: the track ends with a double-tracked Bowie, still lost in the desert.

It was a fresh sound—bright, punchy, unsentimental—and it proved long-lasting, serving as a template a decade later for some The Next Day tracks like “The Stars (Are Out Tonight).”

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

* You could make the case for either being the key, either D major orbiting to its mediant (iii) chord, F#m, or an F#m tonic chord set against its submediant (VI), D major. In either case it’s a “strong” force pitted against a “weak” one, as opposed to a favorite Bowie habit of having two major chords duke it out (“Rebel Rebel,” “Golden Years”).

Top: Ashey Gilbertson, “A U.S. soldier walks in a Baghdad, Iraq airbase with a stuffed tiger on his back,” October 16, 2003.


New Killer Star

December 9, 2014

new killer star

New Killer Star.
New Killer Star (single edit, video).
New Killer Star (Jonathan Ross, 2003).
New Killer Star (Today Show, 2003).
New Killer Star (France 2, 2003).
New Killer Star (Late Show With David Letterman, 2003).
New Killer Star (Last Call with Carson Daly, 2003).
New Killer Star (A Reality Tour, 2003).
New Killer Star (Die Harald Schmidt Show (@36:50 in), 2003).
New Killer Star (Rove Live, 2004).
New Killer Star (live, 2004).

17 March 2003: Walked around Battery Park at lunchtime. Tourists wearing Statue of Liberty headbands; two Ghanese men selling watches from suitcases; a strange lifelessness to everything. Walked through Castle Clinton, west to the shattered globe that used to stand in the plaza of the Trade Center. Went to a bar after work with D, H and G for a St. Patrick’s drink. “When we’ve taken out Hussein, we’re going to take out that guy in North Korea,” D said. But he didn’t want the NCAA tournament to begin only to have to be postponed.

Instead of heading north, he walks down to Canal Street, with its scaffolds and traffic, men selling bootleg DVDs and CDs on blankets spread on the sidewalk (he spies a ChangesBowie, its cover art in the wan smear-colors of an aging printer; he considers buying it, realizes he has no cash). He takes Church Street. He picks up the old burning smell around the time he crosses Chambers and at Barclay he stops. Barriers fence barriers. Behind steel and aluminum grates ten or twenty feet high are long-necked cranes, a tortoise-like dump truck porting dirt around. People move in sagging lines, making lethargic pilgrimage. They take pictures of themselves and their friends in front of a construction site. Men in American-flag hats and bald eagle sweatshirts sell photographs of an exploding building.

The words come soon enough. See the great white scar/over Battery Park… Or is it great white star? The bloodied earth or the place we dream of escaping to?

A white scar is one that’s nearly healed, but the skin can lie. His friends call up to see if he’s ready to go out yet: I’m not better, he says. I’m not going to be better. He keeps a lost city in its head and every day he loses another piece of it. Was there ever a guy with a cobbler stand on Dey Street? Where were the non-fiction books in the Borders: upstairs or downstairs? Were there trees in the lobbies? What kind? How tall were they? What color were the walls of the Cortlandt St. station? Who but we remember these? No, we forget them, too.

gz2002

5 April 2003: It is strange–you wouldn’t know this conflict was raging from any walk through New York. Few conversations are about it; protests are generally small and confined. Some graffiti—Bush Is Hitler sort of thing. The war has become this sort of abstract, bad news from far away, like daily reports of a great forest fire somewhere.

I’m not a political commenter, but I think there are times when I’m stretched to at least implicate what’s happening, politically,” Bowie told an interviewer in 2003. “There was some need, in a very abstract way, towards the wrongs that are being made at the moment.”

“New Killer Star” shares qualities of other “public” Bowie songs. The lyric’s run of sharp, disconnected details call back to the shell-shocked narrator of “Time Will Crawl“; its lyrical tone is a muted, older version of the raging, bewildered man who’s flipping through TV channels in “It’s No Game.” Only its first verse addresses a political “subject”: the empty bowl that once was the World Trade Center, the sutured hole in the ground. The rest of the song’s a man trying to distract and persuade himself by watching the skies, watching television, cottoning his memory with scenes from old films.

There is a feeling [in NYC] that it’s not over yet,” Bowie told Virgin Radio back home in June 2003. “I think everyone’s sort of expecting something to happen. I think the idea of terrorist action in bars and restaurants and that kind of thing, being cited as targets, is somewhere in everyone’s mind.”

So he winches up a routine. The song structure is the four-panel-grid of a comic strip (the bubbles and actions/the little details in color): establishing shot, start joke, build joke, punchline. So here: riff, verse, pre-chorus, two-part refrain (punchline: the title’s a British musician mocking the way the President of the United States pronounces “nuclear”). Eight-bar break. Repeat. The backing singers and the drums follow the same shifting patterns throughout, as if keeping to a map. The guitar/bass riff becomes the pre-chorus vocal melody (duh-DAH DAH, “I’m READ-Y”). In the refrains, the singers are replaced by a high keyboard line, then they’re called back in for the closer (cue tambourine). Do it twice and you’re out. The only variables in the mix are some thin, distorted, sometimes looped guitar atmospherics by David Torn, which sing through the track like telephone wires.

03trip

I read someone a while back (blanking on the name) who said that Bowie should ideally lack nationality—that he was best as a Swiss resident, a man seemingly without a country or culture. But Bowie’s life in Switzerland was a set of lost, comfortable years. He’d been more alive as an artist when he was a Beckenhamite and a Londoner, when he was a Berliner, even a Los Angeleno. In Switzerland he’d been clean. He needed a city’s dirt in his blood again. So without even intending it, he’d become a New Yorker. By 2003, the only residence he owned was in the city. He’d raise his child there. He’s still pretty much there.

It’s a bit like being on holiday in a place I’ve always wanted to go to, that doesn’t come to an end,” he said of living in New York. “I always feel like a stranger here. I am an outsider. I really am still a Brit, there’s no avoiding it. But I’ve got friends here. I probably know this town better than I know the new LondonI can walk around here and find my way far better than I can in Chelsea. I’ve forgotten all the streets. [He mimes befuddlement]. Where did Clareville Grove used to be?

The album he assembled in early 2003 was his “New York” album. Not in the way “Heroes” had been, he told Interview: “In Berlin, I was really dealing with a lot of negativity that I had to lose.” Whereas in New York “there’s a certain energy you get here. I really felt the sidewalk,” he told Mikel Jollett. (You could say Bowie hedged his bets, buying in 2003 a 64-acre mountain near Woodstock with the rumored intention of building a retreat there, though apparently he never has.)

So “New Killer Star” distilled a New Yorker’s emotional reaction to her city becoming the stage of a national tragedy, used as the justification for national retribution (which includes the torture report whose grotesque details have leaked on a slow drip the day I finished this piece).

NYC was, and still is, disliked by much of its country. Two examples from my Nineties: a security guard at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, asking me my final destination, then coldly shaking his head and saying “I’m very sorry to hear that.” A man in an Amtrak train bar car outside Philadelphia, asking me where I’m from, growing agitated, pushing into me. “I was in that city once and I did not like it. Me and that city do not get along.” There was a compact of sorts. People who lived in NYC were pitied but were generally left alone. There’s a David Johansen song written during the Guiliani years, in which Johansen complains that the old order—guys like him ranging around on the street, tourists on buses gawking at him—had started breaking down. They had started getting off the buses, he said. After 9/11, it got worse.

Others are watching us [now]. I don’t think we ever felt that before,” Bowie told Anthony DeCurtis soon after he finished Reality. “There’s a slight unease. We really felt freewheeling and that ‘tomorrow belongs to us,’ anything can happen. Now there’s not quite that swaying surge of hopefulness.

nks

4 May 2003: We went to the Village Underground to see Hammell on Trial, a middle-aged bald man who swears a lot and punishes his acoustic guitar. “Where were the weapons of mass destruction?” he yelled. “A few guys in a tent with gasoline is not a weapon of mass destruction!” “What do you know, man?”: drunk voice in audience.

“New Killer Star” was a typical magpie construction for Bowie: its bass/guitar riff (in part by Tony Visconti, retained from the demos) was essentially the chorus hook of Little Peggy March’s “I Will Follow Him,” with a touch of Blur’s “Coffee and TV.” Nicholas Pegg noted how some of the song was lifted from “”87 and Cry,” from melodies to chorus hooks (and you realize how much the “disgraced” Never Let Me Down is resurfacing on this album).

It was Reality‘s lead single, and it had some hooks: Torn’s “stuttering” opening guitar riff, the vocal tags that enliven the verses, the subtle way the verse’s A minor chord is swapped for a bright A major in the pre-chorus, the grand refrain that promises an escape route. “Iiiii’ve discovered a star!” Bowie sings, Gail Ann Dorsey and Catherine Russell cheer him on. Even if it turns out to be another thing to lay waste to a chunk of the city, it still shines nicely, hanging in the sky above the park. He’ll be optimistic even if it kills him. “The ghost of the tragedy that happened [in NYC] is reflected in the song, but I’m trying to make something more positive out of it,” he told Performing Songwriter. “We have to assume that for every piece of awfulness there’s a good thing…[but] I’m telling you it’s a struggle to find a ray of hope.”

Maybe it was there on the ground, on the streets, somewhere still in the beaten-up, gentrified, overpriced, domesticated old bird of a city. “I still love this town. I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” Bowie admitted to DeCurtis. “I am a New Yorker: It’s strange; I never thought I would be.”

new killa

Recorded: (backing tracks) January-February 2003,(lead guitars, vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios. Released 16 September 2003 on Reality and as the album’s lead-off single on 29 September (the single edit, which trims intro and outro, appears on Nothing Has Changed): because it was released as a DVD single, “New Killer Star” didn’t qualify for singles charts, so it officially charted nowhere in the world).

Top: Beth Keiser, “Fritz Koenig’s Sphere Dedicated in Battery Park,” March 2002; Joshua James Arcady, “Ground Zero” 9/11/02; Christian Brothers High School band visits Ground Zero, March 2003.

All journal entries by me: NYC, 2003.


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 688 other followers