Chapter Eight: Family Albums (1992-1993)

December 26, 2018

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Epigraph   DB to Robert Palmer (the other one), Penthouse, November 1983.

334  Real Cool World    38 Fresh: Black Tie White Noise is among the more opaque Bowie albums, in terms of when and where it was cut and who played on it. Several of its performers, such as the saxophonist Dan Wilensky, were uncredited; its creation was lengthy and convoluted, involving multiple studios, engineers, etc. (Reeves Gabrels recalled to me that at the Hit Factory sessions he worked on in 1992, Nile Rodgers wasn’t there). It’s unclear which Black Tie songs began at 38 Fresh in Los Angeles, a studio Bowie first started using at the end of the Tin Machine period. 38’s engineer Dale Schalow (who has confirmed “Jump They Say” started there) has written an article for the David Bowie Glamour fanzine that unfortunately came out after this book was completed—I look forward to reading it; Songs from the Cool World: a pretty hip soundtrack for DB to be associated with in this era. Tracks included Future Sound of London’s “Papua New Guinea,” My Life with the Thrill Kill Kult’s “Sex on Wheelz,” and some early Moby tracks; first release: as with many Black Tie tracks, there’s a host of edits and remixes. For “Cool World” there is: a) the 3:47 edit used for the video; b) the 4:14 soundtrack cut, used in the closing credits of Cool World—this version appeared on the 2003 2-CD reissue of Black Tie; c) Satoshi Tomiie’s five remixes, including “Cool Dub Thing” Nos. 1 and 2, the “Cool Thing” 12″ club mix and “Cool Dub Overture,” which were on the 12″ and CD single; d) an instrumental version on the B-side of the original 7″ single; funny, works with him…never go home again…always a lot of pressure: to Spitz, 354-355; hybrid of Eurocentric soul: to Dominic Wells, Q, January 1995.

335  You’ve Been Around   A remix of “Around” by Jack Dangers (of Meat Beat Manifesto) appeared on the 12″ “Black Tie White Noise” single; a longer edit of this remix is on the 2003 reissue of the album; live: performed once in 1989, at Tin Machine’s first gig in New York.

336  had the chance to mix Reevesno harmonic reference: Black Tie White Noise promotional video; Gabrels: While he’d also cut a solo for “I Feel Free,” it was wiped once Bowie recruited Mick Ronson for that track. His work on “Nite Flights” wasn’t credited in the album liner notes.

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337  The Wedding/ Wedding Song   St. James Episcopal Church: Commonly known as “the American Church” in Florence. The church’s first rector was Pierce Connelly, who later abandoned his wife and children to become a Catholic priest, only subsequently to change his mind, become an Episcopalian and then sue his wife, who’d become a nun in the meantime, for “restitution of conjugal rights” (from Alta Macadam’s Americans in Florence.) Sinclair Lewis described weekly services there in his World So Wide as being an hour when the assembled US expats “are betrayed into being American again…[though with] their flippant unfaith to their lean and bitter mother, America, there is yet more faith than in their zest for Europe, their opulent mistress”; I was totally confused: Times of London, 29 August 1992; troubled by our inability…being moved by it?: “Perfume, Defence and David Bowie’s Wedding,” a lecture that Eno gave at Sadlers Wells Theatre on 20 July 1992; had to happen at a church in Florence: Hello!, 13 June 1992.

338  hated Wagner: Hello!, 13 June 1992; important for me to find something: The David Bowie Story, 1993; all icing with a couple on top: to Steve Sutherland, NME, 20 March 1993.   Pallas Athena    first release: The original club 12″ single (MEAT 1) had the Don’t Stop Praying Remixes #1 and #2 and the Gone Midnight Mix (the album version, unsurprisingly, was first heard on the album). These mixes also appeared, respectively, on the B-side of “Jump They Say,” on the 2003 reissue of Black Tie, and on the 2003 reissue of Sound + Vision. Along with the album mix, they were released as a digital EP in 2010. A live version of “Pallas Athena,” recorded at Club Paradiso in Amsterdam on 10 June 1997, was issued on the Tao Jones Index 12″ and the “Seven Years in Tibet” single that same August (it also appeared on the revised Sound + Vision). 

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339   Arista fat on earnings: they dropped £10,000 to hold a “rave” promotional party in the summer of 1993, one of no doubt many extravagances; I had to try to make him cool: Watson to CO, 2012. Watson was a true Bowie fanatic (among his bona fides: attending all six Wembley shows in 1976). At the meeting, Arista sat him next to Bowie. While the rest of the table nodded along and deferentially complimented the mixes they were hearing, Watson was actually listening, and at one point leaned over to Bowie and said, “is that something from ‘Heroes’ there?” Bowie reached over and snapped off the tape. The room fell silent. Watson feared for his professional life. Then Bowie smiled, put his arm around Watson and said: “This guy’s got ears!” “I went from persona non grata to top boy,” Watson told me. “We got the gig”; mutually beneficial for his name: Larry Flick’s “Dance Trax” column, Billboard, 6 February 1993; unshakeable belief in God: to David Sinclair, Rolling Stone, 10 June 1993; cornerstone of my existence…own God: Hello!, 13 June 1992.

340   don’t know what it’s about: NME, 20 March 1993.    Lucy Can’t Dance  a CD “bonus track” on the original release, across most markets.  Star Wars 2…couldn’t all suck!…already accepting my Grammy: to Buckley, 416-417.

341  Madonna: as “Lucille Can’t Dance” hasn’t leaked, it’s impossible to know how much of the lyric was there in 1988. It may also be a nod to The Linguini Incident, as Lucy was the name of Bowie’s co-star Rosanna Arquette’s character; ex-husband: Tin Machine’s “Pretty Thing” winks at then-current tabloid stories about Madonna and Sean Penn —Madonna years later publicly denied these claims were true. Bowie made things worse by joking about “hanging out with Sean, and he told us a few things, you know what I mean?” in a 1989 interview; conventional in the extreme: ca. 1991 US TV interview (I did a transcript of it, which is no longer found on YouTube, but this line is also quoted in Pafford and Paytress’ BowieStyle, so I didn’t hallucinate it). He also told the Daily Mirror (18 October 1991) that “I wouldn’t know a Michael Jackson or Madonna record if I heard one”; anything in my video: i-d, July 1987; top-drawer plate spinner: Radio One Madonna special, 1998.    Don’t Let Me Down and Down   planned as the third single from Black Tie until the bankruptcy filing of Savage Records in late 1993. Bowie’s Indonesian vocal (preferable to the English one) appeared on Indonesian pressings of the album and later on the 2003 reissue of Black Tie.

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342   diary-like way: Black Tie promo video, 1993; Tahra: information on her life is still scant in the Western press, but I found biographical details in Le Monde’s review of Yamen Yamen, “Le premier album de Tahra, la belle Mauritanienne” (10 May 1989), and El Madios Ben Chérif’s “Tahra Mint Hembara : L’artiste-amazone,” Noor Info,‎ 5 April 2012. She’s been described as a model, a “princess,” and a friend of Iman by various Bowie resources but I couldn’t verify any of this and much of it seems dubious; “black” and “white” scales: As per 2009’s World Music: Africa, Europe and the Middle East, these modes derive from Arabic music and are always played in a precise order: karr, fagu, lakhal, labyad, lebtayt. These correspond to the concepts of “black” and “white” (the first two, and the last three, respectively), and also to the stages of a life, with lebtayt symbolizing the afterlife. The “ways” are al-bayda (white), al-kahla (black), and l’-gnaydia (mixed, or “spotted”). “Black” is considered more masculine and direct, “white” more feminine and refined. On Yamen Yamen, the song has an A-flat tonality—the verses and solo section move between an F minor eleventh and an Ab major seventh chord  (vi11-Imaj7) while the refrain moves from dominant (E-flat) through Ab and Fm11 to close on a D-flat major 7th (V-I-vi11-IVmaj7); pidgin English lyric: Black Tie promo video, 1993.

343  Looking for Lester    uncredited musicians:  While the trumpeters aren’t credited on the album, there’s a photograph of Bowie and three of them in the studio in the sheet music book. Dan Wilensky cut one saxophone performance that Bowie’s credited with on Black Tie but reportedly couldn’t recall which; America’s classical music: Basically, the “Ken Burns” story of jazz, in which the music loses its way, becoming too academic/ avant garde/ pop-oriented/ what-have-you after 1967 or so, until its rescue by neo-traditionalists like Wynton Marsalis. This scenario is thankfully on the wane, with younger performers like Kamasi Washington easily moving between influences in various genres and not confined to “fusion” or “traditional” modes—Nate Chinen’s Playing Changes documents this generational change, which very much includes the Donny McCaslin quartet; roll the tape…madly out of tunebasket of sounds: Graham Reid interview with DB, 1993; choruses: generally close with a transition progression meant to ready the listener to return to D major (Gmaj7-F#m7-Cmaj7-Bm7).; follow him around with a microphone: Record Collector, May 1993.

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344  Black Tie White Noise  The album’s second single, it had an exhausting set of remixes, detailed in depth on the Illustrated DB Discography site. Among the mixes were the “3rd Floor” mix, first issued on a promo CD for US radio and later on the Black Tie reissue; the “club mix,” the Extended Remix and the Here Come da Jazz mixes (the latter uses Bowie’s “crankin’ out” coda chant as its central hook, be warned) were on the UK 12″ promo (BLACK 1); beginnings of a revolution: David Bowie Story, 1993; far too keen as white liberals…don’t want our advice: NME, 20 March 1993.

345   denial in America…museum of Black America: NME, 25 November 1995; change is no easy thing…positive outcome….often quite punishing for both of us: Record Collector, May 1993; Sure!: a regular chart presence at the turn of the Nineties, with one top 10 hit (“Nite and Day”) and a few R&B #1s (“Off on Your Own,” “Right Now”). Appearing on “Black Tie” didn’t do much for him, to put it mildly: he didn’t release another LP or single until 2009.

346  all bad poetry: often misquoted as “all bad poetry is sincere.” In Wilde’s essay The Critic as Artist, 1891.    Miracle Goodnight   Arista’s third single from the album. Remixes include the 12″ 2 Chord Philly Mix, the Blunted 2, Make Believe Mix, and Dance Dub (all on the 12″ single) and the Maserati Blunted Dub (on the CD single). The Make Believe Mix later appeared on the Black Tie 2-CD reissue. There’s a surprisingly decent mashup out there of Thom Yorke’s “Black Swan” with the Maserati Blunted Dub remix; opening riff: it’s three dyads, or two-note chords: G-B, A-C, A#-C#; a falling phrase (a B-D dyad) answered by a G note; and a repetition of three G notes. It’s opened on Rodgers’ guitar, but mainly played by two synthesizers parked far left and right in the mix. They begin each reiteration in sync, but as the left-mixed synth gets an additional repeat of the tail-end hook (three repeats of the three G notes to the other synth’s two), this creates an echoing effect. There are also two basses parked on the ends of the spectrum, both of which hit on the downbeat then trail off across each bar. The riff is constant throughout the song except for the two solos; bridegroom reveries: Bowie calls her a “yellow dime”: a sun (morning star) that’s also a perfect 10; Handel’s Queen of Sheba: more in mood than melody, as Bowie’s sets of 16th notes jump upward where Handel’s regally descend.

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347  I Know It’s Gonna Happen   Shit-kicking skinhead in a pack: to Paul Nolan, Hot Press, June 2008; pop moment: to Brian Boyd, Irish Times, 20 November 1999.

348  spoofing one of my earlier songs…weepy and silly: Record Collector, May 1993; Ronson having a laugh: as per Mark Levin to Uncut; we are your support group: quoted in David Bret, Morrissey: Scandal and Passion, 236; 11 rows deep: Melody Maker, 25 November 1995.

349   have to worship at the temple of David: The Importance of Being Morrissey, (Channel 4), 2003; only relevant by accident: GQ, 15 October 2012; last we heard of him: BowieNet chat, 1999.    Jump They Say   Again, a big heap of remixes. The UK 12″ single included the Hard Hands, Leftfield and Dub Oddity mixes (the latter, also by Leftfield is on the 2-CD Black Tie reissue); the Rock Mix (orig. on the Savage CD single, “Rock Mix” = banal guitar) and the Brothers in Rhythm 12″ mix are also on that reissue.

350  no going back: New Zealand TV interview, ca. September 1982; my own hang-ups: David Bowie Story, 1993; two-chord progression: much of the song alternates between B-flat and C major, the chords shifting every other bar. The refrain progression (Dm7-F-Gm7-C5) offers a vague resolution, establishing the song in C, with Bb borrowed from F major as a substitute IV chord and so portending a key change to F that never happens. You could also make a case that the song’s been in F major the whole time, with the dueling Bb and C chords the IV and V chords of F; too many of my mother’s tendencies: “Evelyn McHale, Photojournalism as Iconography.” There’s another Bowie half-sibling: his half-sister Annette, born in 1943 (she was his father Haywood’s daughter), whose story ends far happier. As Bowie wrote in the introduction to I Am Iman (7): “When I was seven or thereabouts, my half-sister, Annette, left England for good. She had fallen in love with an Egyptian and was to travel to his village to marry him. She would write. My father may have received news but if so those letters were not shared. I never heard another thing from or about her…[when] Annette had arrived in Egypt, she had converted to Islam, which had meant undergoing a name change. Being the first Western Christian girl to ever visit let alone live in her husband’s village, the most appropriate name for her was obvious. If you care to listen I will tell you that I, David Robert Jones, a Protestant Caucasian boy from South London in jolly old England, have a wife and a sister, both called Iman.” Is Annette (Iman) née Jones still alive? Still in Egypt? A last familial mystery.

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351  Nite Flights  according to Martyn Watson, the “Moodswings Back to Basics” remix was mislabeled and remains misidentified on current releases.  Noel Scott Engel: biographical and career information on Scott Walker from a heap of sources. Anthony Reynolds’ Walker Brothers biography, The Impossible Dream, is essential, as is the Rob Young-edited No Regrets, a 2012 anthology of critical writing on Walker’s music; the documentary 30 Century Man; and Walker’s various interviews for the NME, The Wire, the Guardian and other publications. I’m also indebted to Walker-related conversations I’ve had over the years with the producer and writer Andy Zax.

352   Any recognizable reality: No Regrets, 32; years of bad faith…pay off bills: to Alexis Petridis, The Guardian, 4 May 2006; Heroes…Eno character: Impossible Dream, 318.

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355  Like a Rolling Stone  Mellencamp: In a 2008 interview with Classic Rock, Mellencamp said “I’d thrown [“Jack and Diane”] on the junk heap. Ronson came down and played on three or four tracks…All of a sudden, for ‘Jack and Diane’, Mick said “Johnny, you should put baby rattles on there.” I thought, “What the fuck does ‘put baby rattles on the record’ mean?” So he put the percussion on there and then he sang the part “let it rock, let it roll” as a choir-ish-type thing, which had never occurred to me. And that is the part everybody remembers on the song. It was Ronson’s idea.”    The Buddha of Suburbia  the first track on the CD single is a blend of the original track and the Kravitz “rock mix.” The album wasn’t released in the US until October 1995. The BBC’s Buddha of Suburbia aired over four weeks in November 1993, so technically the title song’s debut was its first episode; commercial presence: Savage laid off its entire staff barely a month after Black Tie‘s release, which wasn’t great for the album’s US promotion. Savage would sue Bowie, claiming that after spending $2 million in advances and video promotion expenses, BMG/Arista, Bowie’s UK/European label, had “unilaterally terminated” its distribution agreement with Savage and had refused to pay $1 million it allegedly owed. The case was dismissed and in July 1998, the New York Court of Appeals refused Savage’s request to reinstate its lawsuit. “This drives a stake through the heart of this ridiculous case,” Bowie’s lawyer Paul LiCalsi said at the time (AP, 3 July 1998).

356  make some money out of it: Jones, 379; never existed: 1994 Bowie memo, shown as part of the David Bowie Is exhibit; dangerous or attractive elements: original Buddha liner notes, 1993.

357  it’s a miracle…how all this happened: to Trynka, Starman, 7; gloom and immovable society: Seconds, August/September 1995; straightforward narrative to the past: Buddha liner notes; emotional contact…opening up a lot of other spaces: to J.D. Considine, Baltimore Sun, 6 April 1993.

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358  South Horizon  lead instrumentation…intercut arbitrarily: Buddha liner notes.

359   spaces between notes: Garson described his performance in detail to Clifford Slapper in the latter’s Piano Man.    The Mysteries  misprinted as “The Mysterie” on the most recent US CD issue of Buddha; converging on this little room: Kureishi, Buddha, 62; my entire world…out the front hall: Interview, May 1990; sanctity of the suburban bedroom: Pitchfork, 2 May 2018.

360   thematic information against it: Buddha liner notes. Dead Against It    house with five thousand rooms: Kureishi, Buddha, 126.

362  Sex and the Church  wedding thing: DB “Hollywood Online” web chat, 1 July 1994.

364  Ian Fish, U.K. Heir    As a listener you’re happy with a lot less: “A Conversation With Brian Eno About Ambient Music,” Pitchfork, 16 February 2017; something of a refrain: I owe a debt to “Magnus Genioso,” the public face of the Mad Genius collective, for their insights into this track and for helping me to hear it with sharper ears.

365  Strangers When We Meet   A different mix of the Buddha “Strangers” is on a Dutch promotional cassette—notable differences are the lack of the “Gimme Some Lovin’” hook and a greater emphasis on the synth drums. The Outside “Strangers” was released in November 1995 as RCA/BMG 74321 32940 2 (c/w “Man Who Sold the World,” UK #39). Tom Frish: this appears to have been his only musician credit—searching for variants like “Frisch” or “Fish” on Discogs didn’t turn up anything.

366 It wasn’t built on honesty…we were worlds apart: Daily Mirror, 19 August 1991; resonance on the road: Gabrels, email to Nicholas Greco, 23 February 2000, quoted in the latter’s master’s thesis, David Bowie’s 1. Outside: The Creation of a Liminoid Space as a Metaphor for Pre-Millennial Society, subsequently published as David Bowie in Darkness.


Chapter Thirteen: Inauthentic Reality (2003-2007)

December 18, 2018

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Epigraphs   Weiner: from an interview with Alan Sepinwall, March 2015; Bowie: from Esquire, March 2004. In mid-2016, I decided to title this chapter after a line from someone whom I thought would be president of the United States when this book published—it’s got a rather different connotation now.

526  Never Get Old   “Rebel Never Gets Old,” a mash-up of “Rebel Rebel” and “Never Get Old” (among the most “early 2000s” things DB ever approved) was assembled by Mark Vidler ca. March 2004 and issued as a single in the EU later that year (ISO-Columbia COL 674971); thrusty…no through line: pretty much said in every 2003 interview, trust me; I can put out stuff: Virgin Radio interview with Dominic Mohan, 15 June 2003; going back on my word: Reality electronic press kit interview.

527  back at home: to Howard Cohen, Miami Herald, 8 September 2003; Studio B: To correct a perceived weak drum sound from this studio, Bowie and Visconti returned to Allaire to play Sterling Campbell’s drum tracks over Allaire’s massive ATC SCM150 monitors, recording the result and mixing into Logic Audio; hardly redo anything: to Richard Buskin, Sound on Sound, October 2003, a source of many Reality recording details. The bulk of Reality was recorded into Logic Audio, with the Looking Glass Studio B board used for monitoring tracks; MCI board…all the synths and modules: Mix, 1 October 2002.

528  rather silly song: to Kurt Orzeck, interview transcript, 9 July 2003; petulant 56-year-old: to Dominic Mohan, The Sun, 12 September 2003; generation of angry old men: to Michael Streck, Der Stern, 21 September 2003.

529  chords: moves include a rise from C major (“forever”) to C# (“this feeling that we’re going to be”), then back to C (“living until the”) and down to B-flat (“end of time”). Then there’s a jarring run from Bb to Ab (“head hangs low”) to Eb (“all over”) to E major to clear the path for the refrain; I desperately want to live forever…I don’t want to let her go: to Billy Sloan, Scottish Sunday Mail, 23 November 2003.

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530  Reality   in the last American boats: Paris Review, Winter 1995 (a source of Steiner biographical detail here); Western high culture was broken: Steiner used as an example John Milton’s “Lycidas,” a poem difficult for today’s readers to untangle without footnotes. In its first lines alone, “ivy,” “myrtles,” and “laurels” have specific thematic meanings for which most 17th-19th Century readers would’ve needed no explication. See Prof. Cosma Shalizi, writing on Bluebeard’s Castle: “Laboriously, with guides like Steiner, I can follow [“Lycidas”] 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; cannot choose the dreams of unknowing: In Bluebeard’s Castle; don’t think there’s one truth: to Ingrid Sischy, Interview, October 2003; whole George Steiner-ism of life…world caught up really quickly: to Ken Scrudato, Soma, July 2003; I don’t think we want new things…we’ve got enough new: to Mikel Jollett, Filter, July/August 2003.

531  rather bad science fiction stories: Filter, July/August 2003; medium for a conglomerate of statements: People, 6 September 1976; who’s stolen this world: to Anthony DeCurtis, Beliefnet, July 2003; we live in absolute chaos…they are all crumbling: Soma, July 2003.

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532  Pablo Picasso     Roadrunner: Joshua Clover’s “Ring Road” (part of his “Terrorflu,” and collected in Best Music Writing 2009) has a great encapsulation of this song; Pablo Picasso: “I read about him when I was 18. I moved to New York and was intimidated by these girls who I thought were attractive. I was afraid to approach them. I didn’t have too high a self-image. I was self-conscious and I thought ‘well Pablo Picasso, he’s only 5 foot 3 but he didn’t let things like that bother him.’ So I made up this song right after I saw those girls. You can picture it; I had this sad little look on my face and I was thinking ‘Why am I so scared to approach these girls?’ That was a song of courage for me,” Jonathan Richman to Boston Groupie News, 1980; more whimsy…little dirgelike…more contemporary: Interview, October 2003.

533  Fall Dog Bombs the Moon   the blade stands ready: as per my journal, 19 March 2003. North said this during the morning show on Fox (whatever the ur-“Fox and Friends” was then); fabulous storehouse: Soma, July 2003; Truthout.org: founded in 2001, it’s still kicking. Its top story during the presidential funeral in December 2018 was “George H.W. Bush Empowered Atrocity Abroad and Fascists at Home”; Kellogg, Brown & Root: Having broken off from Halliburton in 2007, in the following year it was accused of tax dodging. KBR has pleaded guilty to violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by bribing Nigerian officials; its then-CEO was sentenced to 30 months in prison. It’s also been sued for human trafficking, for exposing US soldiers to harmful substances via “burn pits” in Iraq and Afghanistan, and likely has been sued for something else since I wrote this.

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534  issue or policy manifests itself…ugly song for an ugly man: Interview, October 2003; thump about at loud volume: Bowie web journal, 7 March 2003; run by brutes for the common and stupid: Entertainment Weekly, 31 May 2002.

535  Love Missile on the “New Killer Star” CD single and only compiled on a bonus disc for the limited edition European release; anarchic dub sound: the Sputnik Story (http://www.sputnikworld.com/The_Sputnik_Story_7_3.html); £4 million: a complete fabrication, as James later said: Journalist Chris Salewitz had randomly plucked that figure out of the air for a piece he was writing about us in the Sunday Times and four million pounds translated into six million dollars, so we became the “six million dollar band” which appealed to me because I loved the “Six Million Dollar Man”; performative violence: from an NME review of a Sputnik gig in Reading, 1986: It was a fairly normal pop concert. Apart, that is, from the purple-faced Nazi on my left who screamed obscenities at a girl he barged past on his way to the front, or the rotund drunk who clutched his real ale and hollered “Bastards! Wankers! Violence!” while flailing towards the stage, and the Fleet Street photographers who eagerly raced around the building after a young man with a bloody head”; I want to be successful…cheated a lot of people: to Paul Morley, NME, 8 March 1986; Whitmore: Pegg, 174.

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536  New Killer Star  the album’s lead-off single, issued on 29 September (the single edit, which trims the intro and outro, is on Nothing Has Changed) but as it was released as a DVD single, “New Killer Star” didn’t qualify for the singles charts; not a political commenter: Reality press release interview by David Wild; it’s not over yet…everyone’s mind: Virgin Radio, 15 June 2003; A minor to E-flat refrain: a transition readied by Bowie swapping out his former root chord (Am) for an A major in the pre-chorus; on holiday…feel like a stranger here: to Du Noyer, The Word, November 2003.

537  others are watching us now: Beliefnet, July 2003; ghost of the tragedy: to Bill Demain, Performing Songwriter, September 2003.   Looking For Water      virtually looped…melodic content on top: Sound on Sound, September 2003. The chorus hook nicks some of Bobby Womack’s “Lookin’ For a Love” (1974); D major/F minor: You could make the case for either being the key: the tonic D major moving to the mediant (iii) chord, F#m, or an F#m tonic chord set against its submediant (VI), D major; guitar-fattened: replicated on stage in the Reality tour by Slick, Leonard, Cat Russell and Bowie all playing the intro riff. Later performances in 2004 have the descending bass riff played more dominantly and choppier on guitar.

538  Queen of All the Tarts on the blog, I dared Momus to write an elaborate comment for this, the most inconsequential of Reality tracks. His response (20 December 2014) was a near-dissertation on Bowie’s use of diminished passing chords. “They seem to represent transition: the passing of time, the relationship of retrospect to prospect, past to future, nostalgia to uncertainty…As this song is an “overture” to we-know-not-what, the diminished passing chord is totally appropriate here. Since these cascading triads bear no diatonic relationship to the current key, they point the listener forward to some sort of promised resolution, making us long for something which hasn’t yet arrived, isn’t yet clear. A nostalgia for the future, perhaps?…Bowie songs which use diminished passing chords include Space Oddity, Changes, Quicksand, Golden Years, Absolute Beginners, Zeroes, and Buddha of Suburbia. They deal wistfully with time, nostalgia, transience. In Zeroes, for instance, we get one just after “a toothless past is asking you how it feels”….In Golden Years, there’s a stabbed diminished chord after “years”. In Absolute Beginners the chord arrives on “nothing much to take” and “nothing we can’t shake.” In Quicksand it’s on “deceive”…Bowie often resolves it in unexpected directions, making it a leap into the dark. In Zeroes it seems to resolve “wrong,” although nostalgic sitars soften the blow. The diminished passing chord…often comes like an antithesis to the triumphalism of a sequence of major chords — here, for instance, we get a confident stomp (V2 Schneider-ish) from A# to F# to D# which suddenly spirals into something much more romantic and wistful; the passing chord leads into the minors Dm and A#m. There’s a similar chord in Ashes to Ashes, on the last syllable of “pisTOL”. As in Absolute Beginners, it heralds a negative lyric: there’s NO smoking pistol, just as there’s NOTHING much to take…If a major chord is a shout of confidence and aggression, a passing chord is passive, a wise sigh, a note of Buddhist resignation…If we were being Bowie, blocking out the instrumental with words, what would we sing? The stomping I-VI-IV section would possibly feature a description of our tarty queen — a withered rocker in leather, possibly Tiresias in drag — arriving at a nightclub. She’s painted on a poor face today. She’s a butcher passing for a little girl. By the time the diminished chord arrives the triumphalism is spent. We’re now learning something sad about this character: she’s out of time, lost her mind, an Alice lost in Wonderland.”

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539  She’ll Drive the Big Car    favorite suicide song…all her plans: BowieNet chat, 7 September 2003; stuck with this middle-class family: Interview, October 2003; Riverside Drive: for those unfamiliar with Manhattan geography, it’s the furthest-west avenue on the west side of the island, paralleling the Hudson River—Riverside takes you from the Upper West Side up to the George Washington Bridge and west to New Jersey. That said, if the character’s planning to drive into the river while going “south along the Hudson,” she’s probably on the Henry Hudson Parkway.

540  comes up with the goods: Melody Maker, 14 February 1976.

541 Loneliest Guy    despairing piece of work…city taken over by weeds: Interview, October 2003; that sense of loneliness: Beliefnet, June 2003; miles of jerry-built: Hughes, The Shock of the New, 211; being taken back over again by the jungle: Interview, October 2003.

542 Brasilia population: As per the 2010 IBGE census, over 2.4 million people live there, making it the fourth-largest city in Brazil.   Waterloo Sunset   first released as a “cyber-single” download (BowieNet members got it earlier, on a promo CD). It’s also included on the “tour” edition of Reality, which included a DVD with the entire album sequence played live at Riverside Studios in September 2003; started writing a song about Liverpool: Davies, X-Ray, 338.

543 plangent harmonies: with the Kinks’ secret weapon, Ray’s wife Rasa Davies, taking the high harmonies, as she often did.

544  Days   descending bassline: guided downward by the baritone sax: “(Bb) my crazy brain (Bb/A) entangles (Gm) pleading for your (Bb/F)gentle voice.” An example of what Julian Cope once called “the glam descend.”   Try Some Buy Some  unchaste monk: Roth, The Ghost Writer, 5.

545  some kind of system: The Word, November 2003; unending series of harmonic steps: Leng, Music of George Harrison, 99. Ian MacDonald described Harrison’s writing in the Beatles years as using “chord changes as expressive, rather than functional, devices”; chromatic bassline: A-Ab-G-F#-E; Spector found uncomfortable: she’d come around on the song by 1999, when she described it as being “done to make me happy, and it did. It might not have been made for the right reasons, but it’s a good record”; ga-ga over Ronnie Spector: to Jonathan Ross, 2 August 2003.

546  for me it was a Ronnie Spector song: Virgin Radio, 15 June 2003; my connection to the song: Word, November 2003.

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547  Bring Me the Disco King  a note, if you needed one: all the sections in italics are fictions. At least in this world.

548 crawled along through the years: Orzeck transcript, 9 July 2003; written with a sense of irony: to Ong Soh Chin, Straits Times, 9 April 1993, who described hearing the song on a “demo tape.” I imagine it was likely more a rough mix of some kind—I kept their phrase, though; trying to summarize my feelings…too cynical when doing it before: to George Varga, San Diego Union-Tribune, 21 September 2003; sounded cheesy and kitschy: quoted in Pegg, 51.

550 Earthling sessions: as per Mark Plati’s production worksheet for Earthling, this “Disco King” had recorded contributions from all band members and was mixed; sort of muscular way: Orzeck transcript, 9 July 2003; more Kurt Weill…more anguish…strange gloss of the 70s: Matt Diehl, Rolling Stone, 12 December 1996.

552  never got in the room…sounds good: Electronic Musician, 1 November 2003.

553  120 beats a minute: Orzeck transcript, 7 September 2003; voicings improvised…never play it the same way twice…chordal solos can be interesting: Keyboard, January 2004.

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555  Song 2  An arbitrary song choice to title an entry far more about the last Bowie tour. I could have (should have? would have?) listed other tour “medley” songs as well: “It Can’t Happen Here,” “Puppet on a String,” “My Funny Valentine, “Here Comes the Sun,” etc.; live: 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 Festival). 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 appeared on CD in 2010); not something I looked forward to…didn’t feel competent: to David Wildman, Weekly Dig, 3 December 2003.

556  any hope for the industry…source of irrelevance: Chicago Sun Times, 9 January 2004; grossing $46 million: Billboard, 25 December 2004; David’s voice sits on top: to Breeann Lingle, Mix, 1 March 2004; pushed his band to learn 60 songs: Though he sound-checked and rehearsed “Win,” Bowie never played it, only humming it once at his penultimate US show on 4 June 2004; fumbled through a tough football match: Dorsey tour journal, 21 October 2003; karaoke machine: Paul Sexton, The Times, 14 November 2003; I think I’ve done the right thing…pieces everybody knows: to Sean Sennett, Time Off, February 2004; tattered jacket: In Adelaide on 23 February 2004, Bowie appeared wearing 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; constantly grinning: Billboard, 15 December 2003; the Artful Dodger…Americans imitating the British: Mercury News, 19 April 2004.

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557  sense of seriousness: to Kathy McCabe, Daily Telegraph, 19 February 2004; lose his shit for a moment: “Yeah, let’s do that again all fucking night! Where are you, creep? Yeah, I guess it’s easier to get lost in the crowd, you bastard. D’you remember, I’ve only got one [eye] anyway! Fortunately that’s the one that works.” Allegedly the culprit was a fan who claimed the lollipop got knocked out of her hand and became a missile: that’s not supposed to happen: Vulture, 22 January 2016; might have been a few boos: MH to CO, March 2015.

559  She Can (Do That)   do you want to do this?: Young, Facebook post, August 2016; Oh they don’t expect anything: to Courtney Pine, Jazz Crusade (BBC 2), 5 September 2005. Bowie’s last radio interview.

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560 The Cynic  Fortunately I’m not working: “Bowie: The Fashion Rocks Q&A,” Lucky, October 2005; seeing Bowie alone: Paris Review, 11 January 2016; Secret Machines: Bowie interviewed them for a BowieNet podcast in April 2006; very good from where I was sitting: Shears, Boys Keep Swinging, 276.

561 Kurt Cobain song…fresh as a daisy: Visconti on BowieNet, 1 September 2005; just roll the tape: Poison Ivy, 29 March 2010; role in the video: an animation derived from previous photos of Bowie—he didn’t do any filming.  Province   Bowie’s doorman:  Spin, August 2006;

562  be the boss of things: to David Harris, Tiny Mix Tapes, 22 September 2008.

563  Wake Up    Arcade Fire has a strong theatrical flair: Lucky, October 2005; steal it from you!: NME, 18 September 2013.

564  he sang quite a bit: Sound on Sound, March 2014.

565 Pug Nosed Face   filmed: Thanks to the BBC partnering with HBO for Extras, there was a substantial production budget that enabled, for Bowie’s one scene, the entire crew to relocate to Hertfordshire for a location shoot. The nightclub, Elberts in Peg Lane, was in Hertford but the base for filming was established at a location a couple of miles away at the small town of Ware in Hertfordshire. Most information on recording/filming is from Clifford Slapper to CO, 2015—more details are in Slapper’s Garson biography.

566  Falling Down    sounded awful…I’ll drive you: Interview, 30 November 2008; cough medicine vibe: Rolling Stone, 13 February 2008. The quote has it as “tinker-bell,” so I kept it as is, but it was almost certainly meant to be “Tinkerbell.”

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Chapter Nine: In the Realms of the Unreal (1994-1995)

December 17, 2018

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Epigraphs   Johnson: quoted in Dwell, March 2007; Rodgers: quoted in Ted Fox’s In the Groove, 334; Robbe-Grillet: to Susha Guppy, Paris Review, “The Art of Fiction, No. 91”; Mac Liammoir: quoted in Simon Callow’s The Road to Xanadu, 168.

370  The unreleased Leon tapes and the “Segue” tracks that appear on 1. Outside are the work of the improvising set of musicians/co-composers in the initial March 1994 sessions at Mountain Studios. That said, I’ve also included in these credits musicians from the January 1995 New York sessions to cover what sound like, on occasion, different overdubs and rhythm tracks on the officially-released segues—in particular the first Nathan Adler segue—and on “Nothing to Be Desired.” It’s possible these overdubs were recorded in the West Side Studios sessions of late spring 1994, but given that Eno was working on “Segue” mixes and backing tracks in late 1994, there’s a decent chance that at least a few overdubs hail from January 1995; Eno: gear (including transistor radio) as per Eno to Musician, November 1995; commandeered the DJ’s system: as per DB to Steven Wheeler, Music Connection, September 1995. “We spent most of our time at the party afterwards talking about what we were both doing musically. We were going back and forth to the DJ putting on different tracks that we were both writing [laughs]. It almost became a listening session, with people dancing until the record was taken off, and then another one would go on”; distressed instruments: DB interview tape with Simon Witter, 4 October 1995; on the same course again: to Dominic Wells, Time Out, 23-30 August 1995; crank out a record of songs: to John Schaefer for “New Sounds,” 15 September 1989, reprinted in Opal No. 15 (Winter/Spring 1990). I wrote about Wrong Way Up for Pitchfork in 2017.

371  stop mucking about: Jones, David Bowie: A Life, 394; why am I like this?: Rose to Kerrang!, 21-28 April 1990. (Soon after the “I’m gonna kill you Tin Man!” exchange, Rose and Bowie made up); extreme positions: to David Gritten, LA Times, 27 September 1992; mini manifestosboring and bland in popular music: to Ingrid Sischy, Interview, September 1995; songs in 11/8: as Gabrels described it to Trebuchet, 22 November 2014, adding that he sometimes used graph paper to figure it out; bigger landscape in play: to Mark Rowland, Musician, November 1995; full participation creatively: 1 July 1994, “Hollywood Online” web chat (Bowie’s first-ever web Q&A); disastrous new media adventure: to Paul Schütze, The Wire, September 1995.

372  you sort it out: LA Times, 27 September 1992; make the medium fail: to Robert L. Doerschuk, Keyboard, March 1995; evolving on the cuspSim Earth: to Kevin Kelly, Wired, May 1995; endless puzzles: DB’s London press conference for the Outside tour, 14 November 1995; armed with fodder: Interview, September 1995; it’s a visual society now: to David Lister, The Independent, 24 September 1994; musicians always have to be catching up: McLaren’s “end of the Eighties” essay for the Village Voice, 2 January 1990; periphery of the mainstream: Witter interview tape, 4 October 1995; Rudolf Schwarzkogler: (1940-1969). In 1965, he and other Viennese artists—Hermann Nitsch, Otto Mühl, Günter Brus—formed the Wiener Aktionsgruppe (‘Vienna Action Group’). The self-castration myth apparently began with a 1972 Robert Hughes article in Time, which described Schwarzkogler as the “Vincent Van Gogh of body art.. [who] amputated his own penis while a photographer recorded the act as an art event.” Needless to say, the castration imagery in Schwarzkogler’s Aktion series was simulated. Further, the model was Heinz Cibulka—they weren’t self-portraits; Nitsch: (1938-). The artist whose work Bowie most drew on for Outside, as the ritual murder of Baby Grace seems influenced by descriptions of Nitsch’s Orgies Mysterien Theater. Nitsch and Bowie met several times, including a 1997 concert in Vienna (“Here was a short, plump, red cheeked, long gray bearded perky Prof…The tiny baby soft hands. Full of crinkly smiles and of sparkling eye he came over as a little like Santa on a night off. Try as I might, I could not combine the beautific (sic) face in front of me with the barely whispered of horrors of his chosen artistic expression. For even today, in this post-Hirstian era, his 1970s’ exploits still leave one’s mind whirling and the blood curdling.. After our show, with band in tow, we all went off to an industrial style club where, my goodness yes, Herman cut-a-rug, jiggling like some frenzied Friar Tuck.” (Bowie web journal, 23 August 1998)); Ron Athey: (1961-) his “crown of thorns” is referenced in the “Hearts Filthy Lesson” video, and a computer-manipulated image of Athey appeared in Bowie’s “Diary of Nathan Adler” article in Q.

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373  O.J. Simpson: Humo, 5 December 1995; role playing is essential: Witter interview tape, 4 October 1995; Whole Earth Review: e.g., “A new profession, meme-inspector, comes into being”; characters: descriptions from Eno’s “Notes on the Vernacular Music of the Acrux Region” (an appendix of his 1995 diary) cross-referenced with Trynka’s various interviews in Starman (364-365); all the events of the day: Interview, September 1995; Oriental stuff: Trynka, Starman, 364; cannot even play four bars: Spitz, 359.

374  inhibiting or embarrassing position: to Paul Gorman, Music Week, 26 September 1995; fellow pirates: Interview, September 1995; weren’t any good: Jones, 394; over-coherent: Dominic Wells DB/Eno interview, Q, January 1995; archive of strange sounds: Witter interview tape, 4 October 1995.

375  3 March 1994: journal entry was part of the David Bowie Is exhibit; blindingly orgiastic: Ray Gun, October 1995; entirely different spin: to Chris Roberts, Ikon, October 1995; had to do with the art world: to Melinda Newman, Billboard, 19 August 1995; bootlegged: details on the development of Leon, its bootlegging and the assessment of its bootlegger are per Gabrels to CO, August 2018. By the early 2010s, the “I Am With Name” suite was circulating in full, while the other two suites only existed as fragments on various bootlegs. When I began writing blog entries about Leon in January 2013, a mysterious figure (who has never emailed me again, at least via that same address) contacted me and sent me the full three “suites,” with the caveat that I could not share them with anyone, nor post audio excerpts of them on the blog. While this was a bit cheeky for someone sharing pilfered goods, I upheld my end of the deal—the subsequent leaking of the three “full’ suites wasn’t my doing.

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379  incredibly boring: Billboard, 19 August 1995 (“because we did all our recording in Switzerland, it’s about ‘Day One: went skiing, looked at mountain, looked at lake Day Two: bought fromage’”); what the lyric contentafter the fact: Gabrels email to Nicholas Greco, 25 January 2000; cut up the tape: Jones, 397; all based on me: Ray Gun, October 1995; great skeleton…around in 1995: Music Week, 26 August 1995.

380  Adler: another likely reference is to Albert Adler, founder of the individual psychology school; fragmented kind of state: Ray Gun, October 1995.

381  wants to be God: 2003 interview with Koenig; Baby Grace’s voice…that kind of man each time: Humo, 5 December 1995.

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382 Blair Witch Project: “I really wanted to give it a chance but I completely lost interest around fifteen minutes in. Iman was far more objective and felt that without all the hype it would have worked for her a lot better and that there was ‘the kernel of a good idea in there’. Nuts!!” (Bowie web journal, 16 August 1999); Charrington: From Bowie’s interview with George Petros and Steven Blush, Seconds, August/September 1995. S: Do I detect a character from 1984 lurking on your new album? B: Not intentionally. The guy who rents the room… A-ha – Catshriek! Yes, the guy who owns the store in 1984. That’s a little bit of him, I thought. It is very much. A very English character, he’s almost the stereotypical shop owner. 1984’s dystopian imagery has always played a role in your music. It has, indeed. I think it comes out of my background. For those of us born in South London, you always felt you were in 1984. That’s the kind of gloom and immovable society that a lot of us felt we grew up in.”

383  held back a year: New Zealand Herald, 26 June 1999; pissed off more people than Tin Machine: Reevz.net, ca. 2003.

384  Nicholas Nickelby: Ray Gun, October 1995; Grand Guignol: Billboard, 19 August 1995.

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385  Small plot of new land: A Thousand Plateaus, 161. The phrase was a potential response to a question posited a page before: “how can we unhook ourselves from the points of subjectification that secure us, nail us down to a dominant reality?” (Chapter title is “How Do You Make Yourself a Body Without Organs?”) Duncan Jones was a philosophy major at college around this time, though ATP‘s absolutely the sort of book Bowie would love in any regard; Thou Swell: by Rodgers and Hart; functional theatricality: Gabrels email to Greco, 19 March 2000.

386  Hearts Filthy Lesson along with the single edit, it has five remixes found on various single issues—most on the UK 12″ (Trent Reznor’s Alternative Mix; Tim Simenon’s mix (called, variously, the Simenon Mix and the Good Karma Mix); and Tony Maserati’s Rubber Mix, Simple Test Mix and Filthy Mix); juxtapositions and fragments…it makes things a lot clearer: Outside promotional video, 1995; more hooklike: Gabrels email to Greco, 23 January 2000.

388  Thru these Architects Eyes   Live: only performed twice in the 1995 tour, at Tacoma and Hollywood dates in October.

389  boys in leather: quoted in Gregory Woods’ Homintern, 158; we, the best: in Johnson’s review of Mein Kampf for the Examiner, quoted by Kazys Varnelis in “Philip Johnson’s Politics and Cynical Survival,” Journal of Architectural Education, November 1994.

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391  Wishful Beginnings its exile (cut from the second European CD issue of the album) was short-lived, as it was restored to the 2003-2004 reissues; Joni Ve Sadd…Macintosh Quadra 650: shown as part of the David Bowie Is exhibit; going back to the Romans: Seconds, August/September 1995; Rothko: stomach-churning details on his suicide are in James E.B. Breslin’s biography; many sources inaccurately say that Rothko slashed his wrists.

392 called 1. Outside: BowieNet chat, 13 November 1998.

394 The Motel    could occupy the territory of Bowie’s: Eno diary, 11 April 1995; NME offices: recalled in the Walker documentary 30 Century Man; traitors to themselves: Humo, 5 December 1995.

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395 Outside  outsider art: In early 1972, Cardinal, a teacher from the University of Kent in Canterbury, published a survey of “marginalized” artists that he wanted to title Art Brut, referencing how the painter Jean Dubuffet had classed similar artists. His publisher wanted “something more easy to get on with the English ear”: hence Outsider Art. Reviewing the book, Corinne Robins (“A Vocation for Madness and Art,” NY Times, 8 April 1973) pinpointed the flaws of Cardinal’s approach, that he conflated surreal, obscure artists with those who suffered from schizophrenia, and treated the latter as Noble Madmen. Some claimed that “outsider art,” because of its lack of technique, was more pure, spontaneous, and resonant (Dubuffet in 1951: “Those works created from solitude and from pure and authentic creative impulses—where the worries of competition, acclaim and social promotion do not interfere—are, because of these very facts, more precious than the productions of professionals.”) Once the art world became a wing of the stock market in the Eighties, the idea of “outsider” purity became even more alluring. The only remaining real artists were Sunday painters, weird retirees, Jesus enthusiasts, and assorted hermits; Tuchmanhappy looking at them: Parallel Visions, 10; exhilaration watching them work: quoted in Thompson, Hallo Spaceboy, 118.

396  Wild Man Fischer: A Frank Zappa discovery from the late Sixties (how Bowie heard of him). Fischer was a typical “outsider” artist  in that he recorded sporadically, was bipolar and diagnosed with schizophrenia, and later in life was on the street for a time. He died in 2011; no longer felt scrambled: Q, January 1995; Henry Darger: the full title of his opus was The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Its influence on early 21st Century culture is inescapable, from the band Vivian Girls to the cover art of Animal Collective’s Feels to John Ashbery’s poem sequence Girls on the Run; strong, muddy, prolix…wish it was shorter: Eno diary, 18 June 1995; Armstrong: while Armstrong is credited on “Thru These Architects Eyes” (an overdub from the West Side sessions in summer 1994), he apparently isn’t heard on his own song, “Outside.”

397 We Prick You    full of tangential ideas: Eno diary, 11 January 1995.

398  something to be desired…lovely melodies in his rhythm lines: Eno diary, 16 January 1995.

399  I’m Deranged  a remixed/edited (2:37) version appeared on the Lost Highway OST, released 18 February 1997 (a longer edit was used for end credits); just after lunch…totally reborn: Ray Gun, October 1995; serious orchestrated guitar stuff: Musician, November 1995; the bit you liked never happens again: Eno diary, 17 January 1995; F minor progression: i-II7-v-III-i (Fm-G7-Cm-A flat-Fm), with the major chords delaying the progress of F minor to its dominant chord, C minor, and its return home again.

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400  really rather disturbed words: Detour, March 1997. Hallo Spaceboy the Pet Shop Boys remix was issued as 1. Outside‘s third single in February 1996 (four other remixes appear on a Virgin promo 12″ and were collected on the 2004 2-CD album reissue).

401 buried in moondust: Gysin, The Process, 35. There’s an unsubstantiated report that “if I die, moondust will cover me” were Gysin’s last words in 1986 (over the years, I’ve grown dubious of anything that’s allegedly a famous person’s last words). Gabrels’ reference to Bowie finding “moondust” in a book of poems, possibly John Giorno, was possibly a misremembering of seeing Bowie reading Gysin; long sustain guitars…middle eastern scale…pretty much forgotten about it: Gabrels’ response to a query on his website, Reevz.net, ca. 2003 (some quoted in Pegg, 103).

402  almost nothing…we had something…Lagos Mack-truck weight: Eno diary, 17 January 1995; follows the chord changes: Reevz.net, ca. 2003; Space Oddity, frankly: London press conference, 14 November 1995.

403 Oxford Town  hunter to my pastoralist: Eno diary, 17 January 1995; kept us in suspense: Eno diary, 19 January 1995; text almost turned into music: Byrne, Stop Making Sense DVD commentary.

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404  No Control  sturdy frame: Musician, November 1995.

405  body of a great song…extended to the future: Eno diary, 20 January 1995; down a chordal slope: Momus on the “No Control” blog entry, 8 April 2013; Jonathan Coulton: in a very minor coincidence, Coulton and I went to high school together—he graduated the year before me.

406  Onion: written by Nathan Rabin, 21 April 1999; vaguely offered financial backing: Eno diary, 19 January 1995; Indonesian pirates…a peculiar piece of work: Ray Gun, March 1997; Saint Petersburg: Eno told Mojo in May 1997 that he’d moved to Russia because “London is now the hippest city in the world [and] if you live in England and you finally scale the thorny path to celebrity, finally the critics decide, ‘Fuck me, he’s been around so long I guess we should leave him alone.’ You then find you get invited to do every stupid, pathetic thing going—you know, judge this competition, award this, and so on—and I just saw my life turning into a series of small events. I thought I’d go somewhere else where there aren’t any small events”; far out…put it on at a party: Music Connection, September 1995; St. Petersburg and wherever I amRipley’s Believe It Or Not…that new tuberculosis: USA Today, 12 March 1997.

407  Salzburg cancelled: in August 1998, Gerard Mortier, the director of the Salzburg Festival, was quoted in the Austrian press that the Bowie/Wilson opera concept was “stagnating” and that he wouldn’t have the Festival finance Bowie’s proposed stage design, describing the opera’s progress as being at an “impasse”; over 24 hours of material: BowieNet web chat, 17 October 1999; pieced together: Eden.vmg chat, 2 February 2000 (I realize I mistakenly called this a BowieNet chat in the text—pedants get a half-point); Afrikaans: this title apparently originated from a fan’s posting on a long-defunct Bowie message board in July 1997; Ebola Jazz: the origin of this 17-track fake setlist was apparently an anonymous email sent to the Teenage Wildlife site in March 1999. You’ll still find the occasional bootleg or torrent listing these names: caveat non-emptor!; falsifying a concert: a March 1994 diary entry displayed in David Bowie Is; never took place: London press conference, 14 November 1995; I think Brian would have the patience: Soma, July 2003.


Chapter Five: The Strike Price (1983-1985)

December 16, 2018

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182  Let’s Dance   demo: only Nile Rodgers and Erdal Kizilcay have been credited on this—a photograph from the session shows three other people, presumably keyboards, drums and another guitarist or engineer?; sears through: to Timothy White, Musician, May 1983.

183  avatar of pure fame: a wonderful phrase coined by “Magic Fly,” one of Tom Ewing’s commenters on Popular’s “Let’s Dance” entry, 27 May 2009; RCA: New York Times, 13 December 1985; Bertelsmann: RCA was folded into the newly-formed BMG which, in 2008, would be sold to Sony; ten million albums: Washington Post, 26 April 1987; Lodger sold: Zanetta/Edwards’ Stardust lists purported Bowie global album sales as of 1983, noting that only Changesonebowie and Ziggy Stardust had gone platinum. But that doesn’t jibe with BPI platinum certifications in the UK for Scary Monsters and Best of Bowie (1981) and Hunky Dory (1982).

184  K-Tel: to Hopkins, 231. Best of Bowie was a UK #2; manager of the club: New York Post, 12 January 2016. There are lots of versions of this story—the funniest finds Rodgers desperately trying to get out of the way of a puking Idol, and that’s how he meets Bowie. Another version of the story has Bowie and Rodgers sitting side by side, silently, for hours until Rodgers gets the courage to say hello; in another, a less-inebriated Idol introduces Rodgers to Bowie, his fellow London suburbanite.

185 I want you to make hits…David’s directive: Juby, In Other Words, 187; urge to play around with musical ideas: to Chris Bohn, NME, 16 April 1983; two takes: to Robert Palmer, Penthouse, November 1983; old rock ‘n’ roll records…non-uptight music: quoted in Hopkins, 242, 244; vacuousness: Penthouse, November 1983.

186  my paint and canvas: to Jay Cocks, Time, 18 July 1983; that quality of necessity: to Kurt Loder, Rolling Stone, 12 May 1983; not happening, man: to Trynka, Starman, 315; Donovan meets Newley: Rodgers, Le Freak, 189; you won’t get played: to Buckley, Strange Fascination, 337; strummy chords: Le Freak, 190; afraid to chuck anymore: Rodgers, 7 November 2014, speaking at the Oredev Conference.

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187   don’t play that shit: Starman, 316; gated drums: for much more, see Greg Milner’s Perfecting Sound Forever. In 1983, Bowie described the Low drum sound as “that “mash” drum sound, that depressive, gorilla effect set down the studio drum fever fad for the next few years. It was something I wish we’d never created, having had to live through four years of it with other English bands, until it started changing into the clap sound we’ve got now.”; Collins fell in love with the gated snare: see the Collins-produced “I Know There’s Something Going On” by Frida, in which the former ABBA singer fights for her life against all-conquering drums; annihilates the drums: interview with Kevin Hilton, 21 February 2018; decay out fast…rhythm section was doing: to Stan Hyman and Vicki Greenleaf, Modern Recording and Music, July/August 1983.

188   snapshot of Bowie’s brain: Starman, 316; looked like the future…would be timeless: Oredev Conference, 7 November 2014. serious moonlight: a less occult origin for the line is that, according to Rodgers, Bowie would call a particularly good groove or track “serious.” Bowie once said the phrase was his attempt at an “Americanism”; red shoes: Tanja Stark’s “Confronting David Bowie’s Mysterious Corpses” brilliantly puts the use of the red shoes imagery into a universe of Bowie’s death imagery. David Mallet and Bowie made another iconic video, with red shoes as a corrupting symbol of modern capitalism. It’s best remembered for a few sequences: an Aboriginal boy dragging a machine down a Sydney street; an Aboriginal couple painting a snake on the wall of an art gallery; an immaculate-looking Bowie playing his song in an outback bar where some non-actors are growing agitated at the Aboriginal actors dancing.

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189  Modern Love    clean-up single: pop albums once had diminishing returns. A third single, if even released, often charted low. But by the early Eighties, labels were milking one album for years. Epic led the way with Thriller (seven charting singles from a nine-track LP), but many huge mid-Eighties hits were third or fourth singles: “Borderline,” “Purple Rain,” “Hello,” “Sharp Dressed Man,” “Walk of Life,” “Born in the USA.” Ten years later, labels were harvesting albums so ruthlessly that no one wanted to hear anything else the artist ever did again (e.g., the Spin Doctors, Alanis Morrisette, Hootie and the Blowfish); it all comes from Little Richard: Guitar Player, June 1997.

190  the questions of chaos: The David Bowie Story, 1993. In 1990, talking to the LA Times, Bowie said “Modern Love” was “not one of my favorites,” that he’d tried “to cover two subjects…religion and love…and I don’t think they linked too well….lyrically it was too wishy-washy.”

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191 Shake It   a longer version of the track (5:20, compared to the album version’s 3:49) was the B-side of the “China Girl” 12″ single; singer’s album: Musician, May 1983; fresh ears: to Tom Doyle, Mojo, August 2018; thumbnails: Le Freak, 191; spiky about my stuff: MTV interview, 27 January 1983.

192 Ricochet  fitting its outsider status, “Ricochet” was the only Let’s Dance track not to be issued on a single. It titled an odd promotional film, directed by Gerry Troyna, that documented Bowie’s Australasian tour in late 1983 (in which he didn’t perform the documentary’s title song); it should have rolled: Musician, August 1987.

193  just threw it out there: Rodgers, at a performance for Grammy Week, Village Recording Studio, 2015; “Night Mail”: the rhythm of Bowie’s “march of flowers, march of dimes” hook is a close match to Auden’s lines (“letters of thanks, letters from banks”)

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194  Criminal World  also the B-side of “Without You” biggest mistake: Rolling Stone, 12 May 1983; major miscalculation…image: Time, 18 July 1983; Robinson: interview tape, recorded ca. June-July 1983.

195  banner over me: Penthouse, November 1983. In the first The Book of Lists (1977), Bowie made the list of “Famous Homosexuals,” along with Janis Joplin and Elton John; now it’s changing: Serious Moonlight, 168; puritanical place: Blender, August 2002; I am Rod Stewart: to Spitz, 326.

196  spice in his image: The Face, November 1980; only person who knows this?: to Tim De Lisle, The Independent, 10 September 1995; station to station: to David Keeps, Details, October 1995; Metro: Browne, who died of cancer in 1993, and Godwin had hits as solo acts in the Eighties: Godwin’s “Images of Heaven” and Browne’s “The Wild Places.”

197  Without You   in the US, it was Let’s Dance’s fourth single, issued in February 1984, with a Keith Haring cover (EMI America 8190, #73); we’re the opening act: Sound on Sound, April 2005.

198 like a hawk…proud to show off his genius: Le Freak, 191.

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199 Waiata  older well-dressed audience…requests for tickets: Serious Moonlight, 44; literature of crowd psychology: New York Times, 26 July 1983; the guy who wrote about those people: Serious Moonlight, 54; for three concerts in Chicago…$1.2 million for a single show: Hopkins, 261; $50 million in 1983: Tremlett, 313; posh accent: Starman, 324.

201  Imagine The concert performance appears to have been filmed professionally, perhaps as part of the Ricochet documentary; hip ones of the Sixties: Lennon RKO radio interview, 8 December 1980; the unknown is what it is: Playboy, December 1980; might as well do ‘Imagine’: Starzone Interviews, 113.   Tumble and Twirl  the B-side of “Tonight,” whose 12″ single has an “extended dance mix” of this song by Steve Thompson, most notable for an up-mixed heavy bassline that sounds like a bowed cello at times.

202   certified platinum:  Billboard, 15 December 1984; he does deliver: to David Fricke, Musician, December 1984; huge mistake…scantily-dressed: Washington Post, 26 April 1987; too soon: Rolling Stone: David Bowie: The Ultimate Guide, 2016; much further: Rolling Stone, 12 May 1983; searching for me: Soul Interviews, 16 December 2012. All Bowie had heard of Bramble’s work were demos he’d produced for Jaki Graham; conscious effort to distance himself: Buckley, 359; Heatwave: a band with a rather cursed history. A rhythm guitarist was stabbed to death, their original bassist was stabbed and left temporarily blinded and paralyzed, and the lead singer was paralyzed from the neck down after an auto accident; guy upstairs: Musician, December 1984.

203   going in and doing it…after the snow had gone: Juby, 119; Le Studio: an “environmental” studio that opened in 1974, it had a floor-to-ceiling glass wall (as seen in Rush’s video for “Limelight”). It closed in the 2000s, being essentially abandoned to the elements until it was partially destroyed by fire in 2017; jack shit…wanted to get the record out: Buckley, 360, 362; violent: Musician, August 1987; breathing space…buying time: Wipe-out (Hong Kong TV), December 1983.

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204  Haiti: Pop and Friedman’s calamitous time in Haiti is well-depicted in Trynka’s Bleed; solitude in foreign climes: Musician, December 1984; Brooke Shields: NME, 29 September 1984.

205 didn’t want what I earned for myself: David Bowie Story, 1993; frantic complex swing: Musician, December 1984.  Don’t Look Down    mix: its backing tracks were used as incidental music in Jazzin’ for Blue Jean.

 206   proper reggae: NME, 29 September 1984; cut lines: Bowie changed the opening of the first verse, which Pop had repeated later in the song. Pop’s blunt “Why be bored? Who scared you? Why stay here? It’s no piece of cake” becomes “No, I won’t be bored/ I won’t be there. Look at life: it’s no piece of cake.” Blue Jean  exact release date is hard to pin down. It’s reviewed in the 8 September 1984 Billboard and the 15 September 1984 Cash Box; it’s first reported being added to radio playlists in the 10 September 1984 Eurotipsheet and in the 7 September 1984 Radio & Records. As there are other indications that the single was out in the UK the week of 3 September 1984, that’s my guess; Padgham: After Tonight, he went to London to record Phil Collins’ No Jacket Required, which in a way comes off as successful realization of Tonight: it has a similar production style and vocal treatments, rhythm guitar work that sounds like Carlos Alomar outtakes, horns, Arif Martin string arrangements. But NJR has an internal consistency—its uptempo singles are embedded within a wider set of gloomy pieces, making the former seem like manic flights in a depressive’s journal. Also, there are no covers.

207  Jazzin’ for Blue Jean: the Julien Temple video used the age-old formula where the star plays both nerd and mean cool kid (for a relatively recent example, see Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me”). Look for the Right Said Fred guy playing Bowie’s bassist. Mike Sarne’s 1962 UK hit “Come Outside,” where Sarne’s hapless character, failing to pick up a bored-sounding girl (he’s “a smooth-talking East End horndog who’s nowhere near as suave as he thinks he is,” as Andy Zax noted), is almost certainly an influence on Bowie’s sad-sack “Vic” in the video.    I Keep Forgettin’  given its more formal title (“I Keep Forgetting”) on Tonight’s first US release.

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208  Smokey Robinson…wild dance: Ken Emerson, Always Magic In the Air, 170; the single: Wand 126, released in July 1962, charted in September (#55 pop). While Leiber and Stoller are credited as co-composers with occasional collaborator Gilbert Garfield on the Jackson single, they’re the only ones credited on Bowie’s and other cover versions.   Loving the Alien  issued as a single in May 1985. Its video (directed by Bowie and Mallet), with its mix of surreal imagery (the backing band out of de Chirico paintings; the Gilbert and George reference first seen on the LP cover) and high Eighties cheese (Bowie’s primary outfit and ur-Rick Astley dancing) sums up the song in a way.

209  Anderson: though Bowie took pains to say that Glass was his only inspiration, “Loving the Alien” has affinities to “O Superman” and plays with similar themes of faith and power; Fairlight: played by an uncredited musician, Rob Yale, who later claimed he was one of the first people in Canada to have mastered the instrument; Salibi: in The Bible Came from Arabia, he argued that the kingdoms of David and Solomon were in the Saudi provinces of Asir and the southern Hijaz. While Salibi’s book hadn’t been published when Bowie wrote “Loving the Alien,” his ideas were circulating in articles in the Christian Science Monitor and other publications. Bowie mentioned him to Charles Shaar Murray as a “historian [who] is putting forth the idea that Israel is wrong and that it was in fact in Saudi Arabia”; sins hooked upon the sky: suggestive of a line in the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa’s The Keeper of Sheep (“One day while God was sleeping…[Christ] went to the chest of miracles and stole three…With the third he created a Christ eternally stuck to the cross/ and left him nailed to the cross in the sky/ and it serves as the model for others.”). It’s possible Bowie had read Pessoa, whose work had been translated into English in the Seventies; had to do with Major Tom: Buckley, 363.

210 alien Christs: Davies, God and the New Physics, 71; inherent in the song…not even in the lyrics: NME, 29 September 1984.

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211 God Only Knows   in our twenties: to Marc Myers, Wall Street Journal, 7 October 2011; instrumentation: some details from Albin Zak’s The Poetics of Rock.

212 original or better: Musician, December 1984; bit saccharine: NME, 29 November 1984.

213 Dancing with the Big Boys    just recorded it all: Musician, December 1984; threw out there: Juby, 119.

214  work together for survival: Musician, December 1984; one more set of pieces like that: Rolling Stone, 25 October 1984. This is Not America   release: Possibly the previous week (it’s reviewed in the 2 February 1985 Cash Box). The soundtrack album was released on 22 February 1985.

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 215  Boyce: He escaped from prison in 1980, became a bank robber for a time, and intended to fly to the Soviet Union to join the Red Army until being arrested again in 1981 (both he and Lee have since been paroled); Metheny: “He asked if any of us could sing (we couldn’t/can’t!), so he did all the background vocals himself, kind of transforming into what seemed to be two or three different people as he did each part.” (Metheny’s website, “DB RIP,” 11 Jan 2016); pop record: Billboard, 7 June 1986.

217  people in the film: Brian Jay Jones, Jim Henson: The Biography, 355; Lee: he was the one who named the goblin character Jareth; new challenger: Labyrinth: Ultimate Visual History, 29; David Lee Roth: Roth playing against Jennifer Connelly in this film would have been…well, something. Bowie got the nod in part because Henson’s son Brian thought Bowie “was cooler” and because Bowie had more film and stage experience than other candidates; I could see the potential…spoiled child: Inside the Labyrinth; June-August 1985: principal photography began on 15 April 1985 but Bowie didn’t report to the set until early June. Most of his scenes were filmed that month, including the “Magic Dance,” “As the World Falls Down” and “Within You” sequences. Barring a day’s shoot in August, Bowie had completed his scenes by the end of July; just this side of getting it: to Spitz, 336.

218  free hand: Inside the Labyrinth; virtually finished tracks: Labyrinth: UVH, 164; wasn’t a nightmare: Labyrinth: UVH, 123; re-do that whole sequence: Labyrinth: UVH, 131; Wild Things: after Bowie’s death, the demo went up on YouTube, complete with photographs of the session, which showed Eric Idle in attendance.

219 Magic Dance  Portnow: 2 August 1986, Billboard. He later became head of NARAS; filmed: by a 4 June 1985 script draft, the full lyric of “Magic Dance” was complete, though Jareth was originally supposed to sing the “puppy dog tails” line (as he does on the soundtrack version); baby gurgles: Inside the Labyrinth.

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220 As the World Falls Down   exactly the same age: Heather Henson and Jennifer Connelly were born within a week of each other in December 1970.

 221 Velimirovic: Labyrinth: UVH, 41; inner fantasies of this girl: Labyrinth: UVH, 53; Hollywood talent scout: Henson script memo, 24 September 1984; old-fashioned: Inside the Labyrinth; oh how she wants: lines from Laura Phillips’ script revision of August 1984.

222 Ferry: his Girls and Boys was released during the shooting of Labyrinth, in June 1985, Within You    Stone walls and crumbling power: Inside the Labyrinth.

223  little audiocassette: Labyrinth: UVH, 162.  Underground  The 7″ single edit (EMI EA 216, trimmed by over a minute), was backed by an instrumental version; the 12″ has an Extended Dance Version, Dub Mix and another instrumental (no choir this time). The sheet music has an extra verse not found in any mix, to my knowledge (“when will I afford you?/ don’t turn around./ You’re turning slower/ That’s underground”).

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225  That’s Motivation  Various release dates are cited for the release of the Absolute Beginners soundtrack, typically sometime in April 1986. Given that it was reviewed as a new release in the 23 March 1986 Observer, I went with the following day, the by-then-typical UK release day of Monday. Further evidence is that the soundtrack was reviewed in the 5 April 1986 issue of Billboard along with the Stones’ Dirty Work, which came out on 24 March.

226  sexless sparrows: “A Short Guide for Jumbles (to the Life of their Coloured Brethren in England)” (1954); wavering accent: Bowie said he took the idea from a “con man” ad executive he’d known (“there was this continual fluctuation between English and American”). See also MacInnes’ “Young English, Half English” (1957), about Tommy Steele: “[when Steele] speaks to his admirers, his voice takes on the flat, wise, dryly comical tones of purest Bermondsey. When he sings, the words (where intelligible) are intoned in the shrill international American-style drone”; high-falooting…real big number in the old tradition: to Tom Hibbert, Smash Hits, 26 March- 8 April 1986; scenes were shot: dates courtesy of Graham Rinaldi, whose upcoming book on Bowie’s films looks to be definitive; pied piper: Juby, 123; kind of devil: Spin, May 1986; million pounds over budget: The Guardian, 21 September 2005; Sinfield: Literature, Politics, 170.

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227  Release: “Volare” was only included on the 2-LP complete soundtrack, which didn’t get an American release at the time.

228   Absolute Beginners  hey, it’s yet another difficult-to-determine release date! “Absolute Beginners” first charted the week of 15 March 1986 in the UK and Australia (and 29 March 1986 in the Billboard Hot 100), but it was reviewed in the 12-25 February 1986 Smash Hits. While the release date was most likely 3 March 1986, it’s possible it came out the week before, on 24 February 1986; people forget they love: a commenter on Tom Ewing’s “Popular” whose comment I can no longer find. But I swear it once existed; glass eye: to Sandford, 242; Wakeman: added what he described as “classical piano/ Rachmaninoff type stuff” in a later mixing session, where he and Bowie (neighbors in Switzerland) spent a few hours reminiscing; cocaine: a goodbye indulgence, as it’s the last reported time that Bowie used it, as per Kevin Armstrong in Trynka’s bio (the source of the coke was allegedly Angela Bowie—it’s a bit too good a story). But Neil Conti disputed that account on my blog: “It’s absolute rubbish that Bowie was doing cocaine in the studio. He was very calm, happy and healthy, if a little overweight”; tension: The A major 7th possibly came about by Bowie moving a finger while fretting an A major chord (he’d played his chord ideas on guitar to Armstrong in the studio). Chord substitutions brighten the song—a C major chord is swapped in for what should be C# minor on “I’m absolutely,” so affirming that declaration; chords: “Magic Dance” in particular has similar D-Bm-G and F#-E progressions in its refrain (an insight of commenter Y. Tyrell); on a plate: to Buckley, 368; Janet Armstrong: Kevin’s sister, who worked at the clothing store Dorothy Perkins, as per Trynka (332). I say first “major label” performance as she seems to have been the vocalist on a few post-punk singles from the early Eighties.

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230  Dancing in the Street  its B-side was an “instrumental” version (the sort with vocals) with some Saturday Night Live segue-style saxophone noodling and a guitar solo.

231  music-less video: as per Donny McCaslin and other Blackstar musicians; healthy relationship with Mick: Musiek Express, June 1983.

232  cabaret band: Buckley, 367; ego tripsphinxlike: Sandford, 246; Madison Square Garden: Saunders’ blog (www.marksaunders.com), 22 January 2016; smiling, indulgent one: Starman, 332; Stones: The album the Stones were making in the summer of 1985, Dirty Work, sounded like the final, chaotic days of a marriage, with Jagger singing about nuclear war, money-grubbers, and violent sex, with a reoccurring motif of wanting to beat the shit out of someone. It should have been their last album.

234   When the Fires Broke Out      Looney Tunes: Its official title was The Bugs Bunny Looney Tunes 50th Anniversary Special, first airing on 14 January 1986. Other guests included Steve Martin, Billy Dee Williams, Bill Murray, Quincy Jones, Cher, Chuck Yeager, and Molly Ringwald.


Chapter Three: Someone Else’s Horizon (1977-1979)

October 7, 2018

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Epigraphs   isolationist: uncredited early 1978 interview, DB quoted in Miles, In His Own Words, 33.

104  Madman/Sitting      Broadcast: I differ from some sources (Pegg, Cann) here, who have the Bowie/Bolan taping as being on 9 September 1977. There’s a contemporary article by Chris Welch, who attended the show and wrote that it happened “last Wednesday.” Wednesday was the 7th, not the 9th, of September 1977; Bolan back in England…wanting passionately to do it: NME, 7 March 1976.

105  co-write a song: There are other alleged Bowie and Bolan recordings from the mid-Seventies, the one most cited being “Walking Through That Door,” said to be a recording of Bowie, Bolan, and Gloria Jones in LA in 1975. But this is apparently a Bolan song called “Lovin’ You” produced for Richard Jones’ (Gloria’s brother) unreleased album, recorded at MRI Studios in January 1976. Richard Jones has reportedly said Bowie is not on this track; Madman: first issued on a fan-club cassette after Bolan’s death, it was covered by the Cuddly Toys in 1980 and Belgian synth artist Snowy Red in 1982; final episode: its performers were Generation X; a pub rock band called Lip Service; “Heart Throb,” Bolan’s cut-rate Pan’s People, who danced to their self-titled theme song (with giant glowing heart as backdrop) and Gonzalez’s (Gloria Jones-penned) “Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet”; Bolan barely bothering to lip-sync “Deborah” and, with more commitment, “Ride a White Swan” and his blues “Groove a Little”; Eddie and the Hotrods having a blast on “Do Anything You Wanna Do”; and finally a subdued “Heroes,” with Bowie performing alone to a prerecorded backing track; staffers from entering the studio: depicted in Welch and Tim Lott’s articles about the taping for Melody Maker and Record Mirror, respectively, with more stories later recounted to Trynka and Hopkins for their biographies.

106  died within seconds: though it’s often reported that a sycamore tree killed Bolan, the tree (which stood behind a concrete fence post) in truth prevented the car from tumbling down a hill and likely saved Gloria Jones’ life, as per Lesley-Ann Jones’ Ride a White Swan; his son: because Jones wasn’t Bolan’s wife at the time of his death (in fact he was still married to June Child), their son Rolan was legally regarded as illegitimate and Jones couldn’t access the trust fund that held Bolan’s royalties. “Things got very tough,” Rolan told the Daily Mail in 2011. “David’s generosity helped my mother and me to survive [Bowie paid for Rolan’s education and “settled other expenses”]. It wasn’t just the financial help, but the time and kindness. He never came to see us in California…but he kept in regular touch by phone…He’d shrug off our thanks, saying it was the least he could do for the family of a good friend.”  Peace On Earth    Bing was no idiot…I hate that song…biggest complaint: to Paul Fahri, Washington Post, 20 December 2006.

107   knew everything: Hit Parader, June 1978; little old orange: Q, October 1999; on-line mix: Ted Scott, AudioWise, Stories From Sound Control.

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108  Peter and the Wolf   little concerned to say the least: Peter Dobrin, Philadelphia Inquirer, 17 January 2016; Ustinov: Arthur Rubenstein also reportedly declined the job; Kaplan: (who wound up buying the Bowie album), in her Leave the Building Quickly, 177.

109  Revolutionary Song   release: the Just a Gigolo soundtrack also includes Marlene Dietrich and the Village People singing the title song, the Manhattan Transfer, and a version of a Scott Joplin rag; it could have been put on Voyager 2; largest budget: reportedly 12 million deutsche marks (as per Wolfgang Tasler, “Just a Gigolo—A Song, A Story, A Film,” June 1978).

110  somewhat thick: Uncut, April 2001.

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111 Alabama Song     No more costumes: Melody Maker, 18 February 1978; musician seduced: PC Magazine, 3 April 1984; try to play my same music: Melody Maker, 18 February 1978; didn’t interfere too much: Mayes, Starzone Interviews, 39; Alomar: He came close to not being on the tour—in January 1978, Bowie was publicly talking about using Stacy Heydon. The issue was that Alomar was working on his wife Robin Clark’s album (“This is the first year we’ve had any time off,” Alomar told the Emerald City Chronicle in May 1978. “David probably felt I needed to sometime work with Robin and if I didn’t want to do this tour, he wasn’t going to hold me to it.”) But Alomar cleared up his schedule in time. In the same interview, he described his usual role on tour. “When David looks around and looks at the band, he only looks at me. I give him cues and he gives me cues.” In his memoir, Mayes confirmed that “Carlos was in charge. David [acted] as if he was his own kid brother who got a chance to jump up and sing with the band sometimes…he was acting as if the band isn’t going to take him seriously”; Stage: Bowie’s bald attempt to knock off two records from the remaining four that he owed RCA; it didn’t work.

112  began including: its likely debut was Chicago, 17 April 1978; strident piece of music: Vogue, September 1978; speech rhythm: quoted by Kowalke, in Music & Performance, 84; cult of money: Albright, Untwisting the Serpent, 118.

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113  Lenya: Brecht Unbound, 105; more like a circus: to Mark Paytress, Mojo, November 2017; he felt worked best: Mayes, Life On Tour, 111. In 1966, the Doors had started performing the song because its calls for the next whiskey bar was a crowd-pleaser: they were playing the Whiskey A Go-Go at the time.

114 Move On    Mountain Studios  It opened in 1975, the project of singer Anita Kerr and her husband and manager, Alex Grob, who had moved to Switzerland at end of the Sixties. Its Westlake Audio control room was designed to record concerts, as an easy source of work was taping performances at the annual Montreux Jazz Festival (it’s one reason why the actual studio was so cramped and unappealing, as Mountain was originally geared towards recording off-site live performances). By the time Bowie recorded Lodger there in September 1978, Queen had also started using Mountain—the band would buy it from Kerr and Grob the following year; I don’t live anywhere: Northern Lights interview, 16 June 1978; the more I travel: Melody Maker, 29 October 1977; I have never got around…all my traveling: NME, 12 November 1977; trilogy: Bowie was calling Lodger part of a triptych or trilogy before it was released—in an October 1977 interview to promote “Heroes,” he said he was already at work on the third album. Eno also referred to the records as being a trilogy; The Tenant: other nods in the LP art are a postcard addressed to “David Bowie c/o RCA Records, London” (Polanski’s tenant receives a postcard addressed to the former occupant), and the layout of a photo album that Polanski flips through is similar to that of Lodger‘s inner sleeve. The images, which include an infant, a dying Che Guevara and Christ, have similar poses to Bowie’s fallen Lodger; all suggest death or rebirth, “repetition” throughout time. Other influences on the cover art are Egon Schiele’s Self Portrait as St. Sebastian (1914-15) and Francis Picabia’s Nature Morte: Portrait of Cézanne/Portrait of Renoir/Portrait of Rembrandt (1920); Christgau: Village Voice, 10 September 2002, in a review of Heathen as “Dud of the Month.” “Just to be mean I compared his latest phoenix imitation to 1979’s Lodger, a certified nonclassic I always kind of liked. Lodger won easy.”

115  no mixing equipment…we had no choice: Mojo, November 2017; sketchpad: NME, 13 September 1980; self-plagiarism: Melody Maker, 26 May 1979; Kierkegaard: Momus, comment on the “Move On” blog post, 22 July 2012: “It’s not hard to see why Kierkegaard appealed to Bowie at this stage in his life. K’s themes keep returning to belief versus doubt, marriage versus seduction, the aesthetic versus the ethical. His voice is a playful, ironic and experimental one, with constantly shifting styles and personae. If Bowie begins the 1970s as a disciple of the bombastic Nietzsche (most notably in “The Supermen”), he ends the decade under the influence of Kierkegaard (a much subtler, nicer and more social-democratic figure)”; Dudes: the refrain of “Dudes” is D/Dmaj7/Bm/D-A/Am/Am7-G/F/C (with a G-C-A-D turnaround); the refrain of “Move On” is C/F/G/Am/D/Bm/D, with a A-C-G turnaround. The bridge of “Move On” shifts to A minor; that became ‘Move On’: Brooklyn Boy, 268; Garson: to Dan LeRoy, Greatest Music Never Sold, 59.

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116  pick a country: to John Rockwell, New York Times, 7 May 1978; something like Dvorak: Mayes, On Tour, 114.    African Night Flight    fifth business: from the 1970 Davies novel of the same name; Eno chords: Bowie once said he’d gotten “Look Back In Anger” out of the “chalkboard chords” session, but both Mayes and Visconti recalled that the session produced nothing of use.

117  almost all Brian…terrible way to mix a track: Mojo, November 2017; crickety sounds: Uncut, April 2001.

118   German pilots: some were still in East Africa in the 2000s, running anti-al Qaeda surveillance operations out of Mombasa; when they’re going to leave: radio interview, 18 April 1979; Noel Coward: in live versions of “Mad Dogs and Englishmen,” Coward often sang a nonsensical “native” chant to break up verses.   Yassassin   Issued as a single ca. July 1979 in Turkey and Holland (unknown what the Turks made of it). The Dutch single edit lops off over a minute. Bowie said he was considering “Yassassin” for his 1995 tour, but that’s as far as it went.

119  up-chop: Brooklyn Boy, 268. A story to take with some salt, as Davis had been playing a reggae “What in the World” throughout the 1978 tour without apparent difficulty; Hassan I Sabha: From Quark, Strangeness & Charm (1977). Nicking from a song named after the founder of the Hashashin, then calling your own track “Yassassin” is a bit cheeky, even by Bowie standards. Another nod in the lyric was to Shane Fenton and the Fentones’ 1961 “I’m a Moody Guy” (Fenton later became Alvin Stardust); coffee bars in Turkey: 18 April 1979 radio interview; particular culture: NME, 13 September 1980.

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120  Red Sails    Stan Harrison: only credited as “Stan” on the original LP sleeve—he’d later play on Bowie’s 1983 tour. live: for the “Serious Moonlight” tour, Bowie slowed its tempo and added a brass section. It didn’t gel, and he soon cut it from the set list; Errol Flynn…cross reference…don’t know what it’s about: to Watts, Melody Maker, 19 May 1979; motorik: Dominique Leone once gave on ILX a concise definition of it—4/4 time, with snare on 2 & 4; continual eighth notes on hi-hat, with the bass drum mirroring the latter except on snare beats; Belew: David Shaw interview, undated.

121 Repetition    Live: technically, it wasn’t performed in front of an audience in 1997—a backstage performance from rehearsals for Bowie 50th birthday concert was shown on the pay-per-view broadcast. But I figured this was enough for “1997” to merit inclusion; Lodger: Its sequencing has “Repetition” directly following “Boys Keep Swinging.”

122 numbness: Capital Radio, 14 May 1979.

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123  DJ   liberators: The very 1990 movie Pump Up the Volume was probably the last time that a DJ was portrayed as any sort of liberating figure; Mathers: “On Second Thought—Lodger,” Stylus, 20 July 2004; dead air: “Conversations with Bowie,” Capital Radio, 14 May 1979; promo film: directed by Mallet, it helped establish a cardinal rule of early MTV that at some point in a video, glass must be broken.

124 Fantastic Voyage   anxious song: Moody, Salon, 20 September 2014; out of our control: Capital Radio, 14 May 1979; first target: Record Mirror, 24 September 1977; reading: Erdman knew a hit when he saw one, as he went on to write The Last Days of America and The Panic of ’89. Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War sold over three million copies—even Reagan allegedly read it. Another Bowie favorite of the time was Anthony Burgess’ 1985, an odd combination of an essay on Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and a bad novella about a future Britain overrun by trade unions and Muslims; mandolins: Visconti, Roland blog, 2014: “I noticed that the first two chords of the song were the same as the first two chords of ‘Love Me Tender’…instead of strings, it called for mandolins, playing like a string section of mandolins…You can hear ‘Love Me Tender’ if you listen closely to the mandolins just for a bit. Then the third chord is not in LMT anymore so we stopped playing that motif.”

126  Look Back in Anger  US/Canadian single, released ca. August 1979, to little chart action.  remake: it was performed (to a backing track) twice in 1988, at the Intruders at the Palace show on 1 July and for Nam June Paik’s “Wrap Around the World,” a pre-Olympics 90-minute live television broadcast with events simulcast from Europe and Asian countries, on 10 September (in retrospect, this merited inclusion in the “Broadcast” list). The remake is currently out of print; angels to put the world to right: interview with Boffomundo, 1979.

127 tatty angel of death:  Capital Radio, 14 May 1979; rhythm guitar solo: to Buckley, Strange Fascination, 304.

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128 Boys Keep Swinging    UK #7: Bowie’s decision to finally release his disco “John (I’m Only Dancing again)” in late 1979 may have been inspired by the chart success of “Boys.” Twenty years later, Blur raided the song enough for “M.O.R.” that they had to credit Bowie and Eno as co-songwriters. Roxy Music’s “Trash,” released in early 1979, was a similar gambit: an old glam act looking to remake itself as New Wave, with the single debuted on Kenny Everett. Unlike “Boys,” the single flopped, but Roxy soon rebounded with “Dance Away.”

129 colonization…glory was ironic: Bust, Fall 2000; more tension: the D-E-Bb verse progression is a swift move away from the home chord (I- v-of-V- VIb). Bowie adds tension to his underlying chords by briefly pushing to sing submediant notes (B) over the D chord (“hea-ven loves ya”), doing it again (C) over the E chord (“clouds are for ya”), then a tumble down to hit the root note in the Bb chord (“no-thing stands”). Visconti said a third song using this progression was cut during the Lodger sessions, but scrapped; young kids in the basementworld’s your oyster: to Buckley, 304.

130  Red Money   mere whimsy: Uncut, April 2001.

131 Wilson…Dylan: “Reet Petite” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” (cf. “my hands can’t feel to grip”), respectively; small red box: one painting was Man With Red Box, from 1976, described by Will Brooker as “a haunted male figure in a 1930s outfit, glancing off-canvas with apparent horror as he holds, in both hands, an object roughly the size and colour of a brick.”

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132 I Pray, Olé  it was out of print for over 20 years, never found on compilations (as with the rest of the late Seventies Ryko bonuses); it’s at last being released on a single for the upcoming Record Store Day. no memory: to Pegg, 124; Palmer: reply to a commenter on the Illustrated DB Discography board, posted 10 October 2011.        Play It Safe  Source for many stories about this track is Trynka’s Bleed, pp. 241-246, based in turn primarily on interviews with Pop and Barry Andrews (Glen Matlock wasn’t in the studio when Bowie visited).

134  Velvet Couch  first surfaced as a bootleg 7″ (“Two Gentlemen in New York”) sometime in the Eighties; Ciarbis Studios: various references cite a recording date of either 5 or 15 October 1979, based on what I have no idea, though I presume it was cut around that time. There’s also utterly no other reference to a “Ciarbis Studios,” in NYC or elsewhere, that I could find. Presumably it was the name given to someone’s (Cale’s?) home recording set-up or maybe it’s a bootlegger joke; war had been declared: quoted in What’s Welsh for Zen, 176; unheard in the mix: The Cornell Daily Sun, 6 April 1979; throwing things around: to Tom Pinnock, Uncut, February 2016.

135  good old bad old days: Uncut, June 2008.


Lazarus

June 15, 2017

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Lazarus (Michael C. Hall, Lazarus stage performance, 2015).
Lazarus (Hall, The Late Show, 2015).
Lazarus (Bowie).
Lazarus (Bowie, video edit).
Lazarus (Hall, Lazarus soundtrack).
Lazarus (Hall, live, 2016).
Lazarus (Donny McCaslin Quartet, live, 2016).
Lazarus (Gail Ann Dorsey and McCaslin, live, 2017).

Stage

Walking into a performance of Lazarus at the New York Theater Workshop in December 2015, the first thing you noticed was a man lying on his back on stage. You might have recognized the play’s lead actor, Michael C. Hall; if not, you might have thought it was someone playing a corpse, one whose presence would spark the drama once other characters shuffled in.

It felt a bit like being at a wake, those fifteen minutes before the lights dimmed. Hall didn’t move, barely seemed to breathe; people taking their seats spoke in hushed tones. (At a post-Christmas performance that I attended, my friend Rahawa and I sat directly behind Duncan Jones. Something had come full circle: not sure what.)

Lights dim. The alien Thomas Jerome Newton grudgingly resurrects. He stretches, stands up, walks over to his bed. An old friend appears, asks him “don’t you remember the person you were? Your life outside?” “That was before,” Newton replies. “There’s nothing left of the past. It left. This is it now.”

Behind a glass wall upstage is a band, who have been onlookers: a smaller audience to mirror the larger in the seats. Now, a keyboard line, a call to attention on snare, guitar and saxophone riffs. Newton starts to sing:

Look up here, I’m in heaven…

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David Bowie had always wanted to write a musical.

When he was 21, he drafted Ernie Johnson, a rock opera about a man throwing a suicide party. In 1971, he envisioned Ziggy Stardust as a hipper Jesus Christ Superstar: he’d originate the role, other singers would take it over for road productions. He was “keen on writing in such a way that it would lead me into leading some kind of rock musical…I think I wanted to write a new kind of musical, and that’s how I saw my future at the time.” Soon enough, he wanted to make 1984 a musical. He’d play Winston Smith, Marianne Faithfull was considered for Julia, the project was scotched. On it went: countless rumors, nothing produced. Outside was once talked up as a Robert Wilson production in Vienna. Around 1998, Bowie considered reviving Ziggy Stardust in a multi-tiered offering: play, film, website, album.

His itch to move on, to play at something new, was at odds with the time and drudgery needed to write and stage a play. There was always another tour, another album to make. And then there wasn’t.

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Script (1)

Around 2007, Bowie was done with long-term touring, was ambivalent about making new albums. He’d acquired the rights to Walter Tevis’ The Man Who Fell to Earth and was looking for a collaborator to turn the novel into a musical play.

An article by the novelist Michael Cunningham, published in GQ this January, sheds some light on this dim period. Cunningham’s prose style, his caginess about certain details and odd specificity about others, makes the piece read like a man recounting a long, bizarre dream, which is perhaps what collaboration with Bowie was like. (And there’s always the chance Cunningham made up the whole thing.)

Bowie allegedly contacted Cunningham and the two met for lunch in New York, where Bowie “admitted that he was intrigued by the idea of an alien marooned on Earth,” Cunningham wrote. “He’d never been entirely satisfied with the alien he’d played [in the Nicolas Roeg film adaptation]. He acknowledged that he’d like at least one of the major characters to be an alien.”

What apparently caught Bowie’s eye was Cunningham’s Specimen Days (2005), a collection of three novellas set in the past, present, and future, with Walt Whitman as a through-line. The SF story, “Like Beauty,” begins in a New York City full of reptilian refugees from the first inhabited planet contacted by Earth. A female refugee and a male cyborg flee the city, heading west. They meet a group who are planning to leave Earth in a spaceship and take their chances on an unknown planet, but the alien is old and dying, and she can’t escape her exile.

He imagined the musical taking place in the future,” Cunningham wrote. “The plot would revolve around a stockpile of unknown, unrecorded Bob Dylan songs, which had been discovered after Dylan died. David himself would write the hitherto-unknown songs.” Also, there should be mariachi music. “He’d be pleased if [it] could be incorporated, mariachi music being under-appreciated outside Mexico.”

Sermon

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For his play, Bowie was toying with the idea of using “Lazarus” in some way. A name with many stories corked within it. Notably, Lazarus is a double in the New Testament. He’s two different men, with no specific relation to each other.

In the Gospel of Luke (16:19-31), Christ tells a parable. Lazarus is a beggar at a rich man’s gate. He desires “to be fed with the crumbs which fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover the dogs came and licked his sores.” Lazarus dies, is carried up to heaven; the rich man dies, goes to hell. He cries out to “Father Abraham,” asking for Lazarus to dip his finger in water and cool the rich man’s burning tongue for a moment. Tough luck, Abraham says (imagine him in the voice of Dylan on “Highway 61 Revisited”). “Son, remember that thou in thy lifetime received thy good things, and likewise Lazarus evil things; but now he is comforted, and thou art tormented.” The rich man lowers his hopes. He asks for the resurrected Lazarus to go to his home and convince his family to change their ways. They already have the words of Moses and the prophets, don’t they? Abraham says. If that’s not good enough, well, even a dead man at the door won’t make a difference.

You can see John Calvin nodding in his Geneva study while reading this, his thin lips pursed. The rich man isn’t shown to be particularly cruel, Lazarus doesn’t appear to have been particularly holy. But each holds his position: the rich man prospers on earth, burns in hell; the poor man suffers in this life, sits at the head of the table in the next. There are no crossings between heaven, earth, and hell; there are no last-minute favors to be called in. Lazarus has grace; the rich man does not.

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But in the Gospel of John (11), there’s another Lazarus: Lazarus of Bethany, a friend of Christ. Lazarus is expiring of an illness, and his sisters ask Christ to intervene. But Christ hangs back for two days; when he arrives, Lazarus is dead. Christ is mournful, even seemingly angry. ““Where have ye laid him?” They said unto Him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept.” He restores Lazarus to life, calls him forth from the tomb.

You can wonder why Lazarus, of all mortals, gets a second chance at life; two millennia of biblical scholars have. Was the resurrection done for political reasons, to shore up the Christians in Bethany? To show that death is not the end, but merely a sleep in which we wake to another life? Was Christ despairing about the cruelty of death and just said, no, not today?

Lazarus has no lines in the gospel. We don’t know how he felt, waking up in a tomb after four days of death, his body stinking, swathed in bandages. He briefly intersects with the divine and then he’s left behind in the story. An exile, a resurrected alien stranded among the living. The man fated to die twice.

Sermon (2)

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There were plenty of Bowie’s usual themes here—exile, doubles, death, resurrection, fate. And legend: the Biblical story echoes in the African-American folk songPoor Lazarus,” an outlaw hunted by a high sheriff and his deputy (“they blowed him down with a great ol’ .44”), and who’s left to die on a commissary table after asking his mother for a glass of water (the Luke parable is overturned—now it’s Lazarus who asks for his thirst to be quenched). But Bowie had another Lazarus on his mind.

David hesitantly said he’d been thinking about popular artists who are not considered great artists, particularly the poet Emma Lazarus, who wrote “The New Colossus,” Cunningham wrote. “What, said David, are we to make of a poet taught in few universities, included in few anthologies, but whose work, nevertheless, is more familiar to more people than that of the most exalted and immortal writers?” (Again, even if the Cunningham story is BS, Emma Lazarus was part of the play’s conception early on—“The New Colossus” is quoted in the script book.)

Emma Lazarus was a lifelong New Yorker (she’s buried in Brooklyn—to my knowledge, she was not resurrected), one of the first major Jewish-American writers. She wrote poems, polemics, translations, novels; she knew Browning and William Morris. And today she’s remembered for a few lines from one sonnet that she wrote for the Statue of Liberty (to be fair, I doubt many today could recall as many lines from Browning or Morris), a poem that her New York Times obituary didn’t mention.

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Perhaps another New Yorker, after a health scare or two, was wondering how his work would last. Would he also be reduced to a handful of lines? “Ground control to Major Tom.” “Put on your red shoes and dance the blues.” “Ziggy played guitar.” And yet those lines would still be alive—kids would hum them, ad campaigns would keep churning them up. Fragments of Bowie would still be around in 2117, where the complete oeuvre of John Ashbery could be forgotten.

Emma Lazarus would be central to Bowie’s play—a character who falls in love with Thomas Newton, “this most travelled of immigrants” (Enda Walsh), believes that she’s Emma reincarnated. (This character eventually became Newton’s assistant Elly, played by Cristin Milioti in the original run of Lazarus, who sang “Changes” in the spirit of Dorothy Parker.)

Songs

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Cunningham allegedly would suggest plot points or characters and Bowie would respond with “brief passages of music on a piano or synthesizer.” These pieces “had what I can only call a dark buzz of underlayer. They had urgency.” At one point, Cunningham devised a big climactic moment: the alien reveals his true self to his human lover. “I read that passage to David over the phone. The next day he phoned me back and played me a few minutes of music he’d composed for the scene. It was, unmistakably, a fucked-up, slightly dissonant love ballad.” (Bowie also apparently didn’t remind Cunningham that such a scene was central to Roeg’s film; another possible sign this memoir isn’t what it seems.) Halfway through a first draft, Bowie’s heart trouble returned and he needed immediate surgery, Cunningham wrote. “Our musical was put on hold. We never revived it.”

Bowie’s attention was returning to music. By 2010, he’d written many of the songs that would appear on The Next Day. His usual move would’ve been to devote himself to the album and ditch any idea of doing a play: maybe he’d bring up his latest lost idea years later. But Bowie wouldn’t let it go this time—he pressed on with developing his play even as he labored to finish The Next Day.

Maybe one morning over coffee Bowie realized doing a musical about lost Bob Dylan songs, extraterrestrials, and mariachi music was ridiculous even by his own standards. (And of course maybe Cunningham made it all up.) Whatever it was, he grew a touch more realistic about his play. To get it staged in New York, he’d have to offer some type of “jukebox musical.” If people are going to see a David Bowie play, sure, let them hear “Changes” or “All the Young Dudes” along with getting a lot of weirdness thrown at them.

An established playwright collaborator seemed preferable: two absolute beginners at musicals was too many. In the summer of 2013, Bowie asked his producer Robert Fox for suggestions—who’s a great young playwright? Enda Walsh, Fox said.

Script (2)

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Enda Walsh was born in Kilbarrack, a suburb northeast of Dublin, in 1967. Before he turned 30, he’d written Disco Pigs, a play about two teenagers fatally obsessed with each other (the play and its movie version starred Bowie favorite Cillian Murphy).

Reading up on Walsh, Bowie found a voice seemingly born to write his alien-exile play. Describing his Misterman (2011; another Murphy performance), Walsh told the Guardian: “I wanted it to be about a man and a building and for the audience to be asking from the off: ‘How did he end up there? What’s he trying to tell us and why?’ He’s looking for some rest, but his guilt is overwhelming and, besides, he’s existing on Fanta and Jammie Dodgers and cheap cheesecake, so there is no rest.” This is Lazarus in a nutshell.

When Walsh first met Bowie in New York, in autumn 2014, he recalled entering “a secret lift [and] arriving in a completely grey corridor, with this huge ridiculous fucking door at the end of it.” The door (Walsh later told Bowie, “that’s a really stupid door”) led to a gallery, where he found Bowie. Embracing Walsh, Bowie said “you’ve been in my head for three weeks.” True to form, he’d read every Walsh play, and started the conversation by asking about Walsh’s work. “I was just thinking, ‘this is easy,’ because I was talking about myself,” Walsh recalled.

Then Bowie slid four pages’ worth of ideas across the table, and that was the start of it. The two would collaborate for over 18 months, often by Skype: Bowie in New York, Walsh in London.

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He had it mapped out for me,” Walsh recalled. There was Thomas Jerome Newton; his savior, a dead girl; a woman (“Ellie Lazarus”) “who over this short period has a mental breakdown;” and the psychotic murderer Valentine, “who just wants to kill fucking love!” There wouldn’t be a straight narrative as much as a series of events refracted through Newton’s distorted mind: the perspective of a man who can’t leave earth and who can’t die.

Walsh described their writing process as “like making a weather report…I said to him, “Jesus, all we’re doing is constructing weather—it’s all atmospheres and rhythms clashing together.” The bizarre grocery list of earlier versions was gone. Now the play was becoming an ominous mood-piece centered on Newton’s exile and madness. The aim was to create an hour-and-a-half play that felt like a song. “It’s this dream piece, connecting sort of but not fully,” Walsh said. “We talked a lot about a man who effectively wants to die…can we make a piece that feels like it’s been infused with morphine?”

When Walsh learned Bowie had cancer, he wondered how much Bowie was grappling with mortality during the writing. “What must it be like to be David Bowie? [When you die,] are you truly dead?” When they were writing Newton’s final speech, Walsh thought “can you imagine the last moments of your life…to have that grief and fight with yourself, wanting to live, wanting to continue, but wanting rest. That’s what we ended up making…having a silent conversation with each other without it being, ‘let’s go down and have a pint’…how do you deal with the fact you’re not going to be here in three months’ time?”

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I’m done with this life—so a new universe I’ll dream big up there.

Newton, Lazarus.

Caged in his apartment, Newton begins Lazarus in the same condition as at the end of Roeg’s film: drunk, isolated, bereft, numb, missing his home planet. He’s the hollowed-out center of the play, around whom brighter, livelier personalities circle: the grinning murderer Valentine (Michael Esper), the angelic lost girl (Sophia Anne Caruso), and Newton’s assistant, Elly, who’s a set of walking nerves, scrabbling in and out of her clothes.

It was, among many things, a look into how Bowie’s mind worked: an early scene where Newton is thrown around the stage by a female Japanese samurai while they duet on “It’s No Game” could well be how Bowie envisioned the song in his head in 1980. An opportunity to have new songs performed on stage that Bowie never would play live (“Where Are We Now?” is essentially Hall covering Bowie). After January 2016, another layer of the play was revealed: a dying man saying goodbye to his teenage daughter.

“Visionary crap,” pronounced a man sitting behind me at the end of a preview performance.

Studio

lazbass1At first Bowie considered only using his catalog songs for the revised play, but his producer Fox suggested that he write a few new ones.

It’s unclear when Bowie started what became the play’s title and opening song. By 2014, he had a sketch known as “Bluebird,” which he proposed developing with Maria Schneider after “Sue.” That same summer, he demoed the song (now called “The Hunger”) in the studio with Tony Visconti, Zachary Alford, and the pianist Jack Spann. Renamed “Lazarus,” it would be one of the first tracks recorded in the first Blackstar session in January 2015.

“Lazarus” moves at morphine-drip tempo (it takes a minute to get through 16 bars—there are reservoirs of space between each hit of Mark Guiliana’s snare drum), and it’s harmonically bare—the verse dazedly moves from the home chord of A minor (“look up here, I’m in”) out to the VI chord, F major (“heaven”) and slowly back home again. There’s more turbulence in the bridge, which jolts from C major (“I was”) through E-flat major (“looking for your”) to land on D major (“ass”). A possible inspiration, at least for mood and tone, was the Cure’s “The Big Hand” (“it traces back to the Cure and New Order,” bassist Tim Lefebvre said of his opening bassline).

In the verse, the vocal line is confined to a five-note range, mostly keeping to the root notes of chords, with closing phrases dragged across bars (“see-een,” “loo-oose,” “be-low”). Bowie (and Hall) change their phrasing in the bridge: more declamatory phrases that sink a third to expire (“then I used up all-my-money“). They stick with this phrasing when the chords resume the verse’s Am/F pairing, which conveys Newton’s growing frustration at being stuck in limbo, and creates a structural tension—is this still a bridge? is it a new verse? an outro? The song winds down, unresolved; it feels like it’s been expiring for a long time.

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The Lazarus performance, on stage and in its cast recording, is meant for Newton to bring the audience into his state of mind, so Michael Hall quickly gets into the song. The intro is shorter, the bridge is the dramatic peak (complete with backing singers), and the song soon packs off so as to cut to a scene with Elly and her husband.

In the studio, the Donny McCaslin group began by replicating lines from Bowie’s studio demo, with McCaslin playing what were originally Bowie saxophone parts in the verse. But Bowie wanted the song to linger more, to open up, build. “I remember that we played a really nice first take—everyone played very musically, but politely,” Mark Guiliana said. “David said something like, ‘Great, but now let’s really do it.’ He was always pushing us. The version on the record is the next take, where we are all taking a few more chances.”

Compare the Lazarus version’s quick-sweep keyboard intro to the long, brooding opening of the Blackstar take: a chordal bass run by Lefebvre, improvised early in the “Lazarus” session. “The intro didn’t exist on his demo, but after the first take we kept playing, and Tim started playing this beautiful line with the pick, which David liked and thought it would make for a nice intro,” Guiliana said. “He was very much in the moment crafting the music.

For the opening Lefebvre plays a run of eighth notes on his E string, moving up the neck, playing such high notes at first (at the 19th fret) that many have thought it’s a guitar line. It began as an embellishment during the first take’s outro. “I’m a big fan of this band Fink, and their guitar parts are like that, where they move roots around,” he said. “So I did it at the beginning, too, and it became the thing. Anybody that’s heard my playing had heard me do that five billion times…I just improvised the high stuff.”

There was a raw element needed—a clanging, distorted guitar to abrade the verses and outro. Though Ben Monder was on hand for guitar overdubs later in the Blackstar sessions, Bowie played these lines. As Nicholas Pegg discovered, Bowie used the Fender Stratocaster that Marc Bolan had given him in 1977, weeks before Bolan’s death. The power chords—three sliding stops down the neck—at first stand alone, tearing through the opening verse; the scars that can’t be seen but heard well enough. Later they close ranks with McCaslin’s saxophone.

Stage (2)

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Bowie’s “Lazarus” builds as it closes, with McCaslin’s roaring saxophone (at times colored with overdubs McCaslin recorded months later) urged on by Guiliana’s drums and Lefebvre’s rolling bassline. But compared to some of his wilder moments on Blackstar, McCaslin seems controlled, precise, slightly held in check.

Then a show in London, in November 2016. McCaslin starts by announcing “Lazarus” with its three-chord banner, plays the verse melody somberly, then in a higher register. By the bridge, he slowly lifts into the song, begins boring and twisting through it while Guiliana detonates around him. Five minutes in, he’s pushing out, whirling in the air, with higher and higher phrases, holding and choking off notes: the song offers endless territories for him to move into.

In February 2017, in New York, he played with Gail Ann Dorsey. She captures the song with her first line—it’s as if Bowie had turned out to have written it for her: the way she sings “I was living like a king” with cold dignity. McCaslin follows, counter-weaves. She finishes singing and sits down on the stage, letting McCaslin take her place in the relay. There’s no warmup—he tears into his solo, running up and down scales, boiling and rolling while Dorsey nods along in time, her eyes closed. It’s a seance where the spirit doesn’t need to talk, where the living happily do the work.

Screen

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I just thought of it as the Biblical tale of Lazarus rising from the bed. In hindsight, he obviously saw it as the tale of a person in his last nights,” said Johan Renck, who directed the “Lazarus” video.

Shot in November 2015, it’s Bowie’s last public image, and it’s easy to view the video as Lefebvre once described it: “the references to his own mortality, the symbolism in the ‘Lazarus’ video, it’s all spelled out. And he went out in a ball of flames.”

“Lazarus” was meant to be distributed—it was as if Bowie was selecting heirs, passing on estates, shifting properties around. So it was Michael C. Hall’s song, too—the song through which Hall introduced Newton on stage. Hall was the one who first played “Lazarus” to an audience beyond the confines of the NY Theater Workshop, singing it on the Late Show in December 2015. It was McCaslin’s song, though it took him time to fully find his way in. It was Dorsey’s song—when she sang it that night at the Cutting Room, it was as if it had been waiting for her all along, and now she’d finally gotten there. There will be more inheritors to come.

But the video is Bowie’s copyright tag—he makes “Lazarus” impossible for the song ever to fully escape his orbit. A jovial not so fast, loves. He plays two roles (beggarman and resurrectee), both seen in Renck’s earlier “Blackstar” video, and the symbolism is clear, isn’t it? “Jones”: the dying mortal, reaching out to heaven, his wasted body being tugged away from his hospital bed. “Bowie”: the impish trickster daemon, still at work, still plotting, wearing his Station to Station jumpsuit, scoffing at how dully serious death is. Jones sings the mournful verses, while Bowie gets the bridge lines, which derails the song’s doom-and-gloom sensibility with some score settling:

Then I used up all my money!
I was looking for your ass!

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So British, the wit, like a guilt thing, making sure it’s not coming across as too serious or pretentious—and yet that enhances the humanity of it,” Renck said. The video even ends with “Bowie” going back into the closet.

But “Button Eyes,” as Bowie and Renck called the terminal character, was as much of a viciously ironic performance. This is “Dying Bowie” for the tabloids to use, with his Late David Lynch hair and wild gesticulations; a man seemingly older than the planet. It’s how a young person may regard someone old—how do they keep at it, the olds, with so much weight and tear on them? It’s his burlesque of Jacques Brel’s “Old Folks,” a song he’d raided as a young man, for “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” (“you live so far away, when you’ve lived too long”) and “Sons of the Silent Age” (“the old don’t die, they just put down their heads and go to sleep one day”).

It’s a mockery of death, a pantomime, a refusal to take it seriously, for why should we? “Old age, calm, expanded, broad with the haughty breath of the universe,” as Walt Whitman wrote (did he ever meet Emma Lazarus? did they pass on the street?) “Old age, flowing free with the delicious near-by freedom of death.”

And meantime the grinning trickster Bowie is a slave to work: frantically writing, settling the accounts, trying to keep the balls in the air. New titles, names, chord changes. Another play—maybe 1984 at last! 2. Outside: Infection! Should write Brian. More albums. A small residency with McCaslin somewhere in New York—it’ll start at a comfortable hour, we’ll be in bed by 11. More, always more.

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When he was 26, Bowie had sung a curse on time. Time as an addled bureaucrat, pacing in the wings like a stage manager. A bad playwright. A wanker, a puppet dancer. Time took the insults in stride. He was back now, watching Bowie work at the candle’s end with the rest of us. Time’s sympathetic but really, we should be on by now.

Stage (3)

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At first, the cast and crew of Lazarus didn’t know whether Bowie would make the opening night, on 7 December 2015. His health was still a secret kept among Walsh, director Ivo van Hove, and a few others. But he was there. At the end of the performance, Bowie “went around to everyone in the the theater…he wanted to celebrate the stage managers and the doormen—he thanked everyone,” Walsh said. When Bowie left through the front door, out onto East 4th St., Walsh “knew that was going to be the last time I would see him.”

Michael Cunningham said he was there as well. He’d spied a notice at the NY Theater Workshop for Lazarus. “Realizing that David had gone ahead with another writer was a little like running into a lover from the deep past, on the arm of his new lover, and finding that you ceased to miss him so long ago that you felt nothing but happiness for him,” Cunningham wrote.

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A month or two earlier, Bowie’s at an early run-through performance of Lazarus. The bandleader Henry Hey asks for his thoughts. “Is everything OK? Would you like anything else?”

“Yes,” Bowie says. “I think I’d like a sing.”

A keyboard intro, a call to attention on the snare. David Bowie sings before an audience for the last time in his life. The performance is the memory of a dozen or so actors, a dozen or so musicians; some lighting techs, a stage manager or two.

He closes his accounts with “Lazarus.” A New Yorker at death. Pop poet of the downtrodden. Beggar in heaven, twice-dead man, outlaw. Exiled alien, living on Twinkies and gin. Old Button Eyes.

Look up here, Bowie begins, finding his foothold in the song, the musicians there to back him up. I’m in heaven…

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The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

Walt Whitman, “Song of the Open Road.”

Recorded: 3 January 2015 (backing tracks), Magic Shop, NYC; 23-24 April, 7 May 2015 (vocals, overdubs), Human Worldwide, NYC. First release: 18 December 2015, digital single (UK #45, US #40). Lazarus version: first performed 18 November 2015; cast recording made on 11 January 2016. First release: 21 October 2016, Lazarus.

Photos/illus: Gustav Dore, Resurrection of Lazarus; MC Hall on stage at the New York Theater Workshop, 2015 (Sara Krulwich, NYT); Tevis, first edition of Man Who Fell to Earth; Woodcut illustration of Luke 16:19-31 by Jacob Locher, used by Silvan Otmar of Augsburg (d. 1540); Resurrection of Lazarus, unknown painter, Athens, 12th-13th C; portrait of Emma Lazarus, unknown painter; Cillian Murphy and Eileen Walsh, 1996 (Corcadorca Theatre Company); transcription of Tim Lefebvre’s bassline during the saxophone solo on “Lazarus” by Brian Woten; stills and GIFs from the “Lazarus” video (Renck); Bowie at rehearsals (Jan Versweyveld); the cast & creators take a bow, 7 December 2015.

Sources: Cunningham, GQ, January 2017; Walsh, quotes primarily from a conversation filmed at the Dublin Bowie Festival, 10 January 2017, and an interview with the Daily Telegraph (24 October 2016); McCaslin, New Yorker Radio Hour; Guiliana, Modern Drummer; Lefebvre: No Treble, Pedals and Effects; Renck: The Guardian. Also essential resources: Paul Trynka’s piece in Mojo (“Final Curtain,” December 2016) and the latest edition of Nicholas Pegg’s Complete David Bowie.

Some lines of this piece originally appeared in a review that I wrote for Slate on 8 December 2015. Thanks to Alex Reed for the Cure suggestion and to Rahawa Haile and Nikola Tamindzic, Lazarus companions.


‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore

February 16, 2017

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‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore (Bowie home demo, single).
‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore (Blackstar remake).

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A man of property and standing, believing his new wife virtuous, is deceived. She grows sick, though the clinic called, the x-ray’s fine—she just ate some bad melons. Yet the truth’s soon inescapable: she’s pregnant, by another man. Worse, by her brother. I know you have a son, her husband says. O folly! I’m such a fool: you went with that clown.

He’s persuaded to forgive her, but plans revenge. In a season of crime, none need atone. Instead, the brother stabs her to death, skewers his sister’s heart on his dagger, murders her husband, then at last is dispatched by thugs. A cardinal gets the closing lines:

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The last words of John Ford’s 1633 play are its title, and they also title David Bowie’s 2014 single, in which Bowie potted Ford’s revenge tragedy into a film noir setting. Incestuous, doomed Annabella becomes Sue in the weeds.

Wait, no, Bowie’s single is called “Sue.” Turn the disc over. There, the B-side has Ford’s title.

But if “Sue” is “‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore” under an assumed name, then what’s this song?

WITNESS: FEMALE ASSAILANT HAD ‘MASCULINE’ STRENGTH

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It’s Sunday in the late Seventies. In downtown Santa Cruz, the Pacific Garden Mall, “a playland of urban design,” winds along Pacific Street. A few blocks east is the San Lorenzo River; a half hour’s walk brings you the ocean. A jazz band plays in front of the Cooper House, a buff-brick old grandeur that was born a courthouse and now holds shops, bars, and restaurants. It’s the maypole around which downtown dances, as a Santa Cruz journalist wrote.

The band’s called Warmth, fitting for an outfit that carries shoppers and idlers through the Californian afternoons. The bandleader hops from Wurlitzer to piano to marimba; the tie-dye-clad saxophonist uses his solos to tear off into space, with great skronks, broils, and bleats. They play Cal Tjader, some Cannonball Adderley. As the afternoon ebbs, the tempo picks up. “Feel Like Making Love” and “Mustang Sally,” organ notes bouncing off the Cooper House walls. Couples tipsy from white wine over lunch get up to dance. Just offstage, sitting in a chair, is a boy of 10 or 12, watching his father’s band.

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Donny McCaslin, born in 1966, is the work of postwar American systems: a well-funded public school with a top-notch jazz band; a community college with professional jazz instructors; a municipal infrastructure that supported concerts by Warmth, and a community center to host concerts and seminars. “It was a place and time where all of these elements were together in place and I could just plug myself into them,” McCaslin said recently. Today, many are gone. His high school jazz program “is nowhere near what it was…budget cuts have decimated [it],” though the music program of Cabrillo Community College, where he took courses as a teenager, is somewhat intact. The Cooper House and the original Pacific Garden Mall are not, as they were demolished after a 1989 earthquake.

When McCaslin was 12, he made an “impulsive decision to switch out of a class in junior high into beginner’s orchestra,” mainly because a friend was in the latter. Asked what he wanted to play, McCaslin chose tenor saxophone, in part because he was in awe of Warmth’s bohemian saxophonist, Wesley Braxton (“I remember looking into the bell of his saxophone and there was like a pool of condensation and a cigarette butt floating in it”).

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Throughout his teenage years, McCaslin was steeped in jazz. He was lucky in his teachers: his professional musician father, and his band director, whose friendship with a Duke Ellington trumpeter meant that a student band had a book of Ellington charts. In location, too. Santa Cruz was a stop for jazz musicians heading from LA to San Francisco, so on any given Monday night at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center, he could see the likes of Elvin Jones.

He was a pro by college (Berklee, class of ’88), playing in Gary Burton’s band before graduating. Moving to New York, McCaslin did stints with the Gil Evans Project, Steps Ahead, Danilo Perez, the Maria Schneider Orchestra. He found that he thrived in groups. “It would be harder for me to live in a place where I was isolated and alone, and it was up to me in terms of my musical development.”

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A John Coltrane fanatic at Berklee, McCaslin’s core influences would shift to Sonny Rollins and Wayne Shorter. He loved that Rollins once called himself a “blue-collar improviser,” and “the compositional nature of [Shorter’s] improvising.” With Perez, he developed his rhythms (“I grew up when jazz education for sax players was focused on…chord scales and chromatic substitutions, and there wasn’t much emphasis on time and rhythmic variation“). From Schneider, he learned how to deploy soloists, to loosen structure—his solo on her “Bulería, Soleá y Rumba” is one of his first definitive moments on record.

McCaslin stands at 6′ 3″, a great presence on stage, at times bowing to the ground as if gravity’s bent on claiming his saxophone, while his lungs seem as large as mainsails. In 2007 Nate Chinen wrote of McCaslin “unfurling intricate lines as if they were streamers, in great gusts of exhalation.” A melodically dedicated improviser, he works in volume and tone, with a taste for long crescendos, slowly-accumulating builds that splinter into rapid-fire sprays of notes.

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His albums mark his progress. Soar (2006) is McCaslin working through immersions in Latin music, under the sway of tango vocalist Roberto Goyeneche (“the way he sings, half of the time he’s talking, and it’s really over the bar line, it’s got this real vibe“). The aptly-named Declaration (2009) was one grand solo after another, like a man wheeling Cadillac models off a factory floor, from the title track through “M” and “Rock Me.”

At the turn of the decade, McCaslin started assembling his current quartet. Perpetual Motion (2010), his first album with bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Mark Guiliana, was also the start of electronica as a compositional influence, at the urging of his producer/mentor David Binney (by 2014, McCaslin was tackling Aphex Twin’s “54 Cymru Beats“). It was also McCaslin looking back to afternoons at the Pacific Garden Mall, cutting jazz fusion pieces like “LZCM” (i.e., “Led Zeppelin Christian McBride”), “Impossible Machine” and “Memphis Redux” (inspired by “Mercy Mercy Mercy,” a Warmth favorite).

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By 2012, when Jason Lindner had joined on keyboards, the McCaslin Quartet settled into its current form. With Guiliana, McCaslin had a drummer who could groove but also could replicate the rigor of electronic percussion, from the uncanny precision of his beats to how he varied the pitch of his snare hits via sleight-of-hand like placing a bottom-hat cymbal on the snare head. In Lefebvre, he had a road-seasoned, genial monster of a player who got thunderclaps from his pedals. And Lindner could glide from providing washes of synthesizer to the sudden clarity of a piano passage to a Wurlitzer groove that, again, called back to McCaslin’s father vamping on “Mustang Sally” for mall dancers.

Casting For Gravity was a first statement of purpose. “Says Who” has McCaslin alternating types of solos: melodically expansive ones based off a lopsided theme, minimalist ones in which he keeps to a handful of notes while his rhythm section spins around him like bumper cars. Its lead-off track got its title from Guiliana’s comment that one live performance had been so hot that it felt like “stadium jazz.”

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Instead of Giants Stadium, the McCaslin Quartet had 55 Bar, a former speakeasy that’s been on Christopher Street in New York since the Red Scare. Cecil Taylor would hang out by the ice machine, talking about Coltrane and Martha Graham; Norah Jones was there in her first years, Jaco Pastorius in his last. By the early 2010s, it had become “a clubhouse of sorts for players in McCaslin’s circle.”

On 1 June 2014, the Quartet was booked at the 55. On his web page, Lefebvre noted it as a “gig before we record Donny’s new record.” It wasn’t a flawless performance, as Lefebvre recalled struggling with his pedals at times (“the outlets there are janky“). During a break, a waitress came by to say there was a guy at one table “who looks like an old David Bowie.”

WAR DECLARED: RESERVISTS CALLED TO THE FRONT

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McCaslin, though not his band, knew to expect Bowie in the room. The latter was composing “Sue” with Schneider at the time, and she’d recommended he check out the McCaslin Quartet for a few songs on his next album (soon enough, McCaslin and Guiliana would be in rehearsals for the “Sue” recording). Bowie and McCaslin didn’t meet that night, but a day or so later, Bowie sent him an email.

And the first song Bowie sent McCaslin, not long after they started emailing, was a demo he’d recorded at his apartment, a song inspired by what he’d heard at 55 Bar that night.”I sat there in stunned silence for a while,” McCaslin said, recalling first hearing it. Although Bowie was in the studio in summer 2014 to record full demos with Tony Visconti, Zachary Alford and Jack Spann, the B-side of “Sue,” issued that November, was Bowie alone: the same home demo he’d sent McCaslin, full of keyboard presets and crackling with cheap distortion.”The B-side was a demo. It was just kickass,” Visconti said. “His production skills have gone up 5,000%.”

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He’d been recording home demos since his teens. His former manager, Kenneth Pitt, recalled one bedroom studio set-up for which Bowie piled different-sized stacks of books to serve as tom and kick drums. There were a slew of tapes from those years, most of which were done for his publisher (to no surprise, the majority of bootlegged “lost” Bowie compositions hail from this period—the tapes circulated among London song-pluggers).

Bowie’s demos are his shadow songbook. What do they sound like? Are they fresher, wilder, more strange than their finished takes? You could project anything onto them, make them the “real” versions of disappointing album cuts. The early “Scary Monsters” that Bowie made for Iggy Pop in LA, ca. 1975. Whatever the first version of “Bring Me the Disco King” was. His producers were struck by the tapes, from Nile Rodgers (“I said ‘wow, that’s the way ‘Cat People’ goes?'” Rodgers recalled of hearing the original demo) to Hugh Padgham, who described the legendary “soul” demos for Tonight as being livelier and better than some released tracks.

Sometimes he’d dispense with the crutch of pre-recording songs—his late Seventies and mid-Nineties come to mind, when worked without a net in the studio. But by his last years, he’d essentially become a home-studio indie musician—the McCaslin Quartet recalled each demo being a miniature performance, full of surprising sounds, with bass and drumlines intricate enough that the players often based their performances on them. “The demos he sent us were nuts: so off and quirky and awesome,” Lefebvre said.

HEARTBROKEN MAN SAYS MEMBER IN LADYLOVE’S POSSESSION

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Having gone through McCaslin’s catalogue in preparation for working with him (Lefebvre: “usually it’s the other way around—you research the guy who hired you“), Bowie focused on two pieces from Casting For Gravity. One was McCaslin’s take on Boards of Canada‘s “Alpha and Omega,” in which a multi-tracked McCaslin played a looped, phased melodic theme over variations driven by drum and bass. The other was “Praia Grande,” which built to a maximalist McCaslin solo full of great bass note waggles, riding a wave of drums (lots of splash and tom fills), Lindner’s synth and Binney’s vocals.

In the demo of “‘Tis a Pity,” the song’s development is driven by Bowie’s saxophone and piano lines, which pivot off a relatively-unchanging rhythmic base. “Compositionally the bass is more arhythmic and less of a harmonic function,” Lindner said. “It remains pretty much the same through the harmonic changes, with a couple of notes shifting to complement the progression.” (“That’s one where I was using a lot of octave pedal,” Lefebvre added.)

The same was true for the drum pattern. “The groove on the demo was a driving one-bar loop,” Guiliana said. “The challenge was to play this repetitive part but stay in the moment and keep pushing the intensity.” In overdubs, Guiliana played a Roland SPD-SX “full of 808 sounds,” almost all of which were kept in the final mix (e.g. the burst against Bowie’s “’tis my fate” at 3:33).

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Another starting point was likely Nine Inch Nails’ “Mr. Self Destruct,” which like “‘Tis a Pity,” begins with a sonic barrage (taken from THX-1138) and whose timbre is similar. It’s possible Bowie was working out how to create a Steve Reich-esque sense of phasing, acceleration and heightening, and as he had the Nineties on his mind (see future entries), “Mr. Self Destruct” soon emerged as a rock-beat-driven template he could use. (A commenter in 2015 suggested yet another possible ancestor: the soundtrack of the 2005 film Lemming, which also has lots of acceleration and odd timings).

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There’s a fundamental instability in “‘Tis a Pity,” which spends much of its span shading between F major and F minor, from its intro and solo sections (Fm-Bb-F) to the coda, where Bowie’s waves of backing vocals shift from singing A-flat to A major notes, in turn coloring the underlying F chord from major to minor and back again.

But the greatest destabilizer is Bowie’s accelerandorallentando saxophone, moving in and out of phase with a plinking keyboard line. The feeling is of a song laboring to assemble itself, with the saxophone sounding like a locomotive slowly taking on steam until, when Bowie starts singing, the saxophone then slows in tempo, as if out of breath, only to build up again. This struggle continues throughout the song—Bowie’s saxophone disregards whatever role was planned for it to move in its own way, often keeping on the same note as if out of spite, taking an occasional cue from the vocal but more a corrosive agent that winds up ruling the track.

THEFT OF PURSE REPORTED, A DEXTEROUS CRIME

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Indulge yet another theory. David Bowie sits down to write a song based on John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She Was a Whore, turns the Annabella character into “Sue,” winds up with a song called “Sue.” But he still likes Ford’s title (even if he keeps putting an “a” before Pity) and wants to use it. Having transferred Ford’s “plot” into “Sue,” he has an empty stage where once there was a play. A scratch-space to populate.

You could say Ford’s lustful and murderous players are still here, hidden behind screens and made absurd. But the second line, ‘hold your mad hands!’ I cried,” in quotations on the lyric sheet, is an apparent reference to Robert Southey’s Sonnet I (1797), which begins a sequence of poems condemning the slave trade, and whose opening lines are:

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This led Nicholas Pegg, in his newest revision, to go off on an interpretative spree that includes Toni Morrison’s Beloved (I won’t spoil it—you should get the book). “‘Tis a Pity” is a hub around which the grandest, most bizarre interpretations can wheel. Like the now-demolished Cooper House in Santa Cruz, it’s a maypole.

There’s also the inevitable biographical reading. Bowie, apparently having suffered multiple heart attacks in the 2000s, faced worse medical news. Hence the references to disease and theft, to the idea that life is no longer skirmishes but has become a final, consuming battle that the singer knows he’ll lose in time.

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And then, Bowie’s only public statement on the song: “If Vorticists wrote Rock Music, it might have sounded like this.” The Vorticists, Britain’s answer group to the Futurists, had been on his mind for a while—they’re creeping around The Next Day and the Vorticist Blast is listed in his Top 100 Books.

Sitting in the crowded 55 Bar that night in New York, watching a jazz band blast away on stage, his brain being its usual warehouse, did Bowie flash on a parallel? The Cave of the Golden Calf, the notorious Vorticist cabaret of the early 1910s, combination gay bar and avant-garde hobnobbing gallery. A low-ceilinged club in the basement of a cloth manufacturer, its walls adorned with Ballet Russe murals and Wyndham Lewis’ stencils.

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Calling up wild mad nights in London in the early 1910s, comparing them with a crowd of polite young jazz enthusiasts gathered that night in New York in the last years of the Obama Administration. The Vorticists had demanded the future, wanted a world of dynamism, machines, color and noise, and they got the war instead, the war that began the summer that the Cave of the Golden Calf went bankrupt. The war that killed several Vorticists and sent Wyndham Lewis to the Western Front, on patrol for the Royal Artillery, spying on German positions from forward observation posts, calling in artillery strikes.

We say we want the future, but when it comes, it’s always the war.

The Cave of the Golden Calf was located at 9 Heddon Street, London. Its former building is in the background of the cover photo of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, with Bowie posed right up the street.

VOICE URGES CROWD TO RESTRAIN WOMAN, CHAOS ENSUES

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Making a “proper” version of “‘Tis a Pity” for Blackstar was a top order of business—it was one of the first tracks taped for the album, on 5 January 2015. “When we got together that first week, David said he wanted to re-record [it],” McCaslin said. “We were playing hard and going for it. That just happened in like ten minutes. That might’ve been the first take.”

The Blackstar “Pity” opens with two sharp intakes of breath, like a man readying himself to walk up another flight of stairs. Or, to be fair, like someone snorting coke.

The demo vocal is quieter, its laments humbler; it’s a man making strange asides in a corner of the room, trying to find an angle into the song, which is rolling along without any need of him. The Blackstar singer is more gregarious: he has an audience. Man, she punched me like a dude, he begins in a conspiratorial tone, trying to cadge a drink from a stranger in a bar. He rubs his cheek in wincing recollection. My curse, I suppose, in a tootling phrase; his four-note closing emphases—that-was-pa-trol—broken with a piping lift up an octave to a high F on “waaaaar.”

He keeps on, his muddled tale growing murkier (maybe he got that drink), cracking the hard “ks” of “kept my cock” like walnuts, oddly dramatizing her “rattling speed” by slowing his notes down, crowning “whore” by making it his new octave-jump. Each time he repeats the title phrase, he grows more absurd until, in the last go-round, his voice seems to have crawled into his pocket: teeshapeetysheeewarseurhoooor.

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The other great change lies in how the saxophone’s deployed. On the demo, it’s always there in the verses, essentially becoming the lead vocal, the chief color in a whirlwind of noise. On Blackstar, with McCaslin now taking the part and breaking it in two (he did sax overdubs months after the initial take), its use is more precise and dramatic. In the first verse, McCaslin only enters with a slow dancing phrase after “my curse”; in the third, he arrives with some Albert Ayler-esque trumpeting phrases. His multiple sax tracks take on much of the work of the piano on the demo, making an upspeed-downshift duet of stereo-scoped saxophones.

As McCaslin spirals outward into the coda, tearing into notes and discarding them, David Bowie breaks character. A whoo! as if he’s startled by something, then two shouts—goddamn, this is happening—and a last yell like a man coming off a roller-coaster loop. Standing in the studio, facing this miraculous band he’d found seemingly from out of nowhere, stepping back to see what’s in front of him.

It’s the Vorticists’ “separating, ungregarious British grin.” It’s Jacobean incest-murder noir, or God’s judgment on slave traders or just whatever strange jokes floated through his head on the day he sat in his apartment and started taping his demo. A ridiculous bloody history of this broken world is within “‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore,” a latter-life masterpiece, with no top and no bottom.

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Recorded: (demo, B-side) ca. June 2014, Bowie’s home studio, Lafayette St., NYC; (album) (backing tracks) 5 January 2015, Magic Shop; (McCaslin overdubs) ca. March-April 2015, Human Worldwide; (vocals) 20, 22 April 2015, Human Worldwide. Released: (demo) 17 November 2014, B-side of “Sue”; (album) 8 January 2016, Blackstar.

Sources: Quotes on Pacific Garden Mall from the Santa Cruz Sentinel: Wallace Bain, 3 Oct 2009 (“urban design”) & Jason Hoppin, 14 Oct 2014 (“maypole”). McCaslin bio: primarily from David Adler, Jazztimes, 13 June 2011, and DM’s interview with Neon Jazz, 12 February 2016. Also Nate Chinen, NYT, 14 June 2007; Jason Crane, All About Jazz, 8 September 2008. Other quotes from Jazztimes (Lindner), Modern Drummer (Guiliana), No Treble, Pedals & Effects (Lefebvre), Mojo (Visconti, McCaslin), Uncut (McCaslin), New Yorker Radio Hour (McCaslin). Insights on composition: Alex Reed; “Crayon to Crayon.” Momus, in 2014, brought up the Cave of the Golden Calf; his album The Ultraconformist claims to have been recorded on wax cylinders at the club in 1910.

Photos/art: Ian McDuffie, ‘Tis a Pity She Was a Whore, 2015; panel from Hawkeye No. 9, 2013 (Matt Fraction/David Aja; suggestion of Fraction); Warmth at the Cooper House, ca. 1970s; Santa Cruz Sentinel, 31 March 1989; Nadja van Massow, “Donny McCaslin, Jazz Baltica,” 30 June 2007; McCaslin & band at 55 Bar, 2015; Lydia Wilson as Annabella, ‘Tis Pity.., Barbican, 2012; Wyndham Lewis, Cave of Golden Calf brochure, 1912; mash-up of Cave of Golden Calf, 1912, & 55 Bar, 2015. All text breaks from Blast No. 1 (1914), the 1915 D.C. Heath & Co. edition of Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore or the NYT, 9 August 1914.

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Bowie: Object/ David Bowie Is…

October 26, 2016

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I’ve still not read an autobiography by a rock person that had the same degree of presumptuousness and arrogance that a rock & roll record used to have. So I’ve decided to write my autobiography as a way of life. It may be a series of books. I’m so incredibly methodical that I would be able to categorize each section and make it a bleedin’ encyclopedia. You know what I mean? David Bowie as the microcosm of all matter.

Bowie to Cameron Crowe, 1975.

We will never have a book from Bowie, apparently. One of the most literate rock musicians, one insightful and charming whenever he wrote about his music, has left no memoir behind.

Not that he hadn’t tried. He began an autobiography in 1975 while filming The Man Who Fell To Earth. It was a bizarre cocaine-fueled fantasy/memoir called The Return of the Thin White Duke; an excerpt was included in Crowe’s 1976 Rolling Stone profile of Bowie.

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In 2015, Martin Schneider discovered that Bowie had given a draft of the first chapter of Thin White Duke to Crowe, who’d subsequently donated it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame archives in Cleveland. Schneider quoted a few paragraphs from the nine-page typewritten document, including an apparently autobiographical passage about the 14-year-old Bowie in Bromley, 1961:

My grey flannel pants have been tapered at the cuffs to a tight thirteen inches. Waiving aside the Perry Como, I chose for class today the thin blue on white accountants stripe with its starched white collar.

I catch sight of myself in the living room mirror and take pride in those buttocks. My cock looks bulgy and tough.

Denis, all wreathed in smiles under his short curly hair, tells me that if I just pinned the badge to my school blazer, silk and wool, I can take the badge off when catching the bus home.

Schneider describes the draft as alternating between such fairly lucid passages and wild, grandiloquent rants in the tortured register of “Future Legend.” It’s unknown whether Bowie completed the manuscript; odds are no (if he gave a chapter draft to a reporter, it’s a sign he didn’t consider the work to be that essential at the time).

But much like his long-announced ambition to direct a film, a Bowie book seemed inevitable one day. Surely at some point, especially once he’d retired from performing and making albums, he’d get down to work at last. After all, he’d kept everything—costumes, lyrics, studio outtakes, posters, set designs. It would just be a matter of assembling the pieces of his past and sparking some memories from them.

Writing could be a salvage job. In the late Nineties, Bowie had talked up a 30th anniversary Ziggy Stardust film/ play/ remake spectacle. It came to nothing except for a 15,000 word introduction he wrote for Mick Rock’s Moonage Daydream, in 2002 (sample anecdote: “When the TV series Bewitched went into colour in the late 1960s, for some strange reason Samantha occasionally wore tiny tattoos on her face. I thought it looked really odd, but inspired. So I used a little anchor on my face myself for the ‘John, I’m Only Dancing’ Video.”) Autobiography, especially if centered on his music, seemed feasible for him.

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News about Bowie: Object broke in September 2010 when word spread at the Frankfurt Book Fair that Bowie, via agent Andrew Wylie, was shopping a book around. Wylie reportedly told publishers that Bowie’s book would be just “the first in a series designed to explore his creative process.” Penguin Books soon had Bowie under contract.

A 28 September 2010 post on Bowie’s website announced that “We still don’t want to give too much away just yet, suffice to say that David Bowie has been working on a book called ‘Bowie: Object’…a collection of pieces from the Bowie archive, wherein, for the first time, fans and all those interested in popular culture will have the opportunity to understand more about the Bowie creative process and his impact on modern popular music.”

It would be designed by Jonathan Barnbrook; its structure would be a list of 100 objects which told the history of David Bowie.”The book’s pictorial content is annotated with insightful, witty and personal text written by Bowie himself,” as per his website. One example, included in the announcement, was the notorious Kirlian photograph of Bowie’s cocaine-enhanced fingertip.

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The book proposal came off as a parody of A History of the World in 100 Objects, a Radio 4/British Museum documentary series that began in early 2010 and was issued as a book later that year. You can see Bowie’s mordant sense of humor. Where in 100 Objects, the rise of science and literature is represented by No. 16, Iraq Flood Tablet (700-600 BC) and No. 19, Mold Gold Cape (Wales, 1900-1600 BC), Bowie : Object would represent his LA years via No. 29, Cocaine Spoon (ca. 1975) and Labyrinth as No. 65, Jareth’s Codpiece (1985).

He needed some kind of organizing structure (in Thin White Duke, Bowie used Hebrew letters to separate autobiographical paragraphs from fictional ones). One of his self-admitted weaknesses was an inability to follow through on long-term projects, so a pseudo-museum catalog concept seemed like a good way to get a book done: pick 100 things, write a few paragraphs about each, hit ‘send.’ A piece he’d written for the Daily Mail in 2008 seems like an early draft in retrospect, offering a few sharp, funny paragraphs for a handful of songs:

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What followed was a long period of rumor about the book’s progress. In July 2011, The Guardian claimed that Bowie’s deadline for turning in the manuscript to Wylie had been December 2010. In January 2012, the Daily Mirror reported, in an article to commemorate Bowie’s 65th birthday, that Object would be published that October. “His first piece of public creativity in a decade (sic).” But nothing was confirmed, and the years went on.

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A wonderful hoax appeared in 2012, when a website called Bowie Myths ran a scoop: the site manager had managed to obtain some sample material Bowie had submitted to Penguin. The excerpt builds slowly, starting with a straight-faced “object” description (“22. Minimoog. “The tilting control panel is truly iconic, the wood finish superb, the feel of the dials top-notch, and the 44-key (F to C) keyboard is a delight“) on through a set of increasingly absurd entries, closing with a taxonomy of Garden Gnomes.

Some fans thought this was the real thing, prompting message board battles and eventually requiring Bowie Myths to write a disclaimer. The hoax’s timing was perfect: 2012 was swirling with rumor, in part because Bowie was planning to launch something and news of his return had started to seep out, in quiet ways. The spoof also highlighted the absurdity of the Object concept, to the point where you wonder if Bowie didn’t read it, have a good laugh and say, “well, that’s been done well enough.”

Because there would never be an Object, not even a posthumous one. Days after Bowie’s death, Penguin spokesman Matthew Hutchinson told Newsweek, “Penguin is not expecting it to happen,” while Newsweek quoted a source allegedly close to Bowie as saying Bowie didn’t complete the book before he died. (One presumes a biographer will turn up the full story one day—the book world is a chatty one). The closest Bowie would ever come to an autobiography was the list of 100 favorite books that he offered in 2013, a collection that ranged from Mishima to Kerouac, Nancy Mitford to Homer; it’s essentially a bibliography of key Bowie influences, obsessions and points of reference.

Object became a ghost of a book that never was. On Amazon Canada, it’s still going to be published in some lost 2011. According to Amazon UK, it came out earlier this month.

David Bowie exhibition

The most obvious theory about the fate of Object was that the book was subsumed by David Bowie Is…, an exhibition that premiered at the Victoria & Albert Museum in March 2013 (Victoria Broackes, co-curator, said she thought this was the case). After all, the exhibit includes what presumably would have made the cut for Object—Bowie’s paintings of Iggy Pop and Mishima, his stage outfits, his lyric sheets, set designs and even his coke spoon.

Again there was mystery and misinformation. Initially The Guardian claimed, when it broke the story in August 2012, that Bowie would co-curate the exhibit (“the V&A’s director confirmed that Bowie is involved”). This prompted a rare public statement by Bowie to deny this. “I am not co-curator and did not participate in any decisions relating to the exhibition…A close friend of mine tells me that I am neither ‘devastated,’ ‘heartbroken’ nor ‘uncontrollably furious’ by this news item.”

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During the 2000s, Bowie had hired a private archivist to finally catalog all of his holdings. Then he began quietly looking for a venue to make use of it. The V&A was an obvious choice, as they’d done an exhibit on Kylie Minogue in 2007. In late 2010, a Bowie assistant contacted the V&A to see if they were interested. Curators Broackes and Geoffrey Marsh flew to New York to discover a 75,000-piece collection, from which Bowie let them take whatever they wanted (presumably with some sort of veto power). It was much like how he’d let Ryko go through his studio outtakes in the late Eighties.

The deal was that we could borrow anything from the archive but that he would have nothing to do with the exhibition, that all the text must be checked for factual accuracy by the archivist but the interpretation is ours,” Marsh told the New York Times.

The exhibit would be constructed around roughly chronological “rooms” (the layout didn’t alter much when the exhibit moved to other cities, though Berlin got a new “Berlin room”), from his childhood bedroom to the dressing room of The Elephant Man to a recording studio. It worked well enough to symbolize Bowie’s life: a man whose early days were spent in a series of small rooms, the dreams that he built hanging on the walls or in images swirling around the ceilings.

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Ever since Col. Tom Parker sent Elvis Presley’s gold-plated Cadillac on a worldwide tour, in lieu of Presley making live appearances in the mid-Sixties, rock stars have had objects replace themselves. It’s rather medieval, sending reliquaries around to the shrines while the saints stay at home (or are happily dead). See the Beatles, using albums and promo films in place of live shows in the late Sixties, or Bowie here—David Bowie Is would be his last global tour, going from the UK to Canada, Brazil to France, Japan to Italy, and will run until decade’s end at least. It’s the sort of tour where just the roadies, sets and costumes are needed. The musicians exist only in the past, trapped in film loops, heard performing in headphones the exhibit gives you.

Bowie’s lack of involvement in the exhibit, where he’d once been intending to select and annotate the “objects” himself, can be read in a number of ways. He simply may have found it too much work, and happily outsourced it to professionals. He may have had a falling out with the curators after initially planning to take part. And as some reviewers of the show argued, there was a grand funereal sense to some of the exhibit—the stage costumes worn by blank-faced mannequins, like guardians of some restored temple; the handwritten lyric sheets mounted under glass, like butterfly specimens. It was the detailed recreation of a creative spirit that seemed to have departed, leaving rooms of marvelous relics behind.

And Bowie’s last years, with their frenetic activity, pushed against this idea. Who knows when he was diagnosed, what health issues he’d dealt with in the late 2000s. But it’s easy to see why he’d be writing a play at last, and keep making new albums and videos, rather than spend time curating himself. As he sang on “The Next Day,” he wasn’t quite dying yet. Leave the commemorations to someone else, there’s still work to do.

First opened: 23 March 2013, The Victoria & Albert Museum. Subsequent exhibitions: 25 September-19 November 2013, Art Gallery of Ontario; 31 January-20 April 2014, Museum of Image and Sound, Sao Paulo; 20 May-24 August 2014, Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin; 23 September 2014-4 January 2015, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; 2 March-31 May 2015 Philharmonie de Paris; 16 July-1 November 2015, Australian Centre For the Moving Image, Melbourne; 11 December 2015-10 April 2016, Groninger Museum, Groningen, Netherlands; 14 July-13 November 2016, Museo d’Arte Moderna di Bologna. Upcoming: 8 January–9 April 2017, Warehouse TERRADA G1 Building, Tokyo; Barcelona, spring 2017, hopefully NYC at some point after that, so I can finally see it. In comments, would love to hear the thoughts of those who have seen the exhibit.


Heat

October 12, 2016

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Heat.

1. Mirror Contract

The photograph shows a room in a flat in West Berlin—155 Hauptstraße, Schöneberg. David Bowie lies on his side on his bed. Thirty years old, his face is that of a beautiful sleeping child.

This is Bowie-in-Berlin, in a stolen moment (or was it? was the photograph staged for possible use? I don’t know who took it). A man gone from the world, hiding in his bedroom. The headboard is a wooden sunrise. All that’s on the yellow (not electric blue) wall is an enormous canvas: Bowie’s portrait of the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima.

One of Bowie’s favorite paintings, arguably his best, it’s a severe crop of Mishima’s head, which seems carved from stone. The almond eyes have a penetrating sadness.

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Well before he first toured the country in spring 1973, Bowie had immersed in Japan (he always did the research). He loved its art, photography (Sukita), fashion (Yamamoto), food, music (Toru Takemitsu), kabuki (Bando), film (Oshima), temples, and likely more than a few of its citizens. Perhaps above all, the work of Mishima, whose last books were being translated into English in the early Seventies.

For Bowie, Mishima was the extremity of Japan’s artistic culture. He stands most openly in Bowie’s “Berlin” songs. A tributary of “Heroes” is The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, of whose sailor Mishima wrote “he was perfectly aware he would leave [his lover] in a day yet he was ready to happily die for her sake” (and recall that “sailor” was Bowie’s internet handle in the Nineties).

The sailor washes up in Lodger (“Red Sails”), an album with a Mishima counterpoint in “Fantastic Voyage” (Mishima, of the samurai: “there is dignity in serenity, there is dignity in clenched teeth and flashing eyes”; Bowie: “dignity is valuable, but our lives are valuable, too”), Mishima’s decayed angel in “Look Back in Anger” and reference in “Yassassin” (“Look at us—sun and steel“). “Because You’re Young” and “Teenage Wildlife” tick to the quickened pulse of Mishima novels like Thieves, with their passionate, beautiful young suicides.

Consider Mishima’s description of a samurai preparing for seppuku (“the sense of beauty was always connected with death…the samurai was requested to make up his face by powder or lipstick, in order to keep his face beautiful after suffering death“) and Bowie’s makeup for the last Ziggy Stardust shows.

At dinner with Arcade Fire in New York in 2005, Bowie talked of his love of Mishima’s work and said he’d been in Tokyo when Mishima died. Like many Bowie stories, it was a perfect synchrony and quite untrue: on 25 November 1970, Bowie was likely sitting at his piano in Beckenham while Mishima stabbed himself in an army commander’s office in Tokyo.

2. Entrance to the Stage

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I had a desire to turn myself into my own opposite, even in real life…I cannot be certain whether I actually created my own opposite or merely an aspect of myself which until then had been ignored.

Mishima, The Sound of Waves.

Like David Bowie, Yukio Mishima is a stage name. He was born Kimitake Hiraoka in 1925, to a family of samurai heritage. Fifty days after his birth, his formidable grandmother essentially kidnapped him, having his cradle moved into her sickroom. He lived in her house, rarely seeing his parents or siblings, until he was 12 years old.

Allowed dolls and origami for playthings, his few friends (all girls) severely vetted, he was left alone to dream and read fairy tales. When his grandmother determined she finally was going to die, she returned him to his parents. His siblings saw him as a lodger; his father considered the would-be decadent scribbler a disgrace.

During World War II, Mishima was in college, waiting to be called up for the last battles of the Pacific. “A genius destined for death,” he described his 20-year-old self. “It was a rare time when my personal nihilism and the nihilism of the age perfectly corresponded.” His memory of 1945, the year of the atom bomb and surrender, was of merciless sunlight. “The summer sunlight poured down prodigally on all creation alike. The war ended yet the deep green weeds were lit exactly as before.” A sympathetic army recruiter rejected him (Mishima had played up a recent bout of tuberculosis), so Mishima never fought. The world gained a writer who wished he’d died a soldier.

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What people regarded as a pose on my part was actually an expression of my need to assert my own true nature. And it was precisely what people regarded as my true self which was masquerade.

Mishima, Confessions of a Mask.

By the Fifties, he was Japan’s best-selling author. His books, full of death, scandal and glamour, were so popular that slang for an adulterous woman, yoromeki fujin (“lady misstep”), came from his novel A Misstepping of Virtue. He wrote and directed plays; he wrote, directed and/or starred in dozens of films (he liked playing toughs and gangsters) and once sang a film’s theme despite being tone deaf. “How wonderful to be a star!” he once said while sprawled upon a sofa backstage at one of his plays.

In whatever little compartment—as a clown (which he liked to be), as an actor, as a gangster, as an aristocrat—every little thing he tried be, he also resisted,” the writer Nobuko Albery said. To the actress Hideko Muramatsu, Mishima said human beings are made of opposite halves: love and cruelty, tenderness and hatred. “Try to express both sides at the same time. Then the personality you create will be more profoundly expressed.”

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He was a gay man who married a woman and had two children; a Europe-loving aesthete obsessed with restoring traditional Japanese culture, the sovereignty of the emperor and the Japanese army (now with nuclear weapons). His dogged, precise work schedule was that of a banker while he dressed, as his biographer John Nathan described, in a “blend of Hollywood cool and Roman drugstore cowboy,” favoring shades, loud sport shirts, black pegged trousers, gold chains. (Nathan, who went to discos with Mishima in the Sixties, said “it was like watching a studied imitation of a dancer; he always looked horrifyingly sober“). Within his Western-style house with a statue of Apollo in its garden (“my despicable symbol of the rational“), Mishima wrote on a metal desk in a small, spartan room. At parties, he’d roll on his back to do impressions of a dog treeing a cat, would imitate Marlon Brando in One-Eyed Jacks. Then he’d dismiss everyone before midnight so he could get in his writing hours.

Frail in build after the hothouse years of his childhood, driven by his shame of failing the draft (and being kidded in gay clubs about being so skinny), Mishima began exercising and weight-training until he had the body of a lean Charles Atlas. He seemed to have custom-designed each muscle as he had each room of his house.

In Sun and Steel, he wrote that he began life as nothing but mind. “I was to learn the language of the flesh, much as one might learn a foreign language.” Once he’d learned it, he knew he would lose it—the idea of his body’s inevitable decay appalled him. “I was the final heir to the tradition of Japanese beauty.”

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By the mid-Sixties, he’d set upon two goals: he would write his masterpiece and would die by ritual suicide. At first he thought these irreconcilable, but found a means to entwine them and bring them to fruition.

While writing Spring Snow, the first of his quartet of novels The Sea of Fertility, he befriended a group of nationalist students, whom he’d incorporate into his next book, Runaway Horses. He joined the Army Self-Defense Force (roughly Japan’s equivalent to the National Guard), going to boot camp at age 42. As he wrote The Temple of Dawn he created a civilian counterpart to the ASDF—-a private 90-man army called the Shield Society (he wrote their theme song). He debated left-wing students, starred as a terrorist in a film, hoped a leftist uprising would cause his civilian army to be activated.

He was playing war, which had a special excitement for him because he hadn’t been allowed to do so as a child,” his brother later said.

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On the 25th of November 1970, Mishima and four Shield Society disciples went to the ASDF headquarters and held the commander hostage. Mishima stood on the balcony to orate to the soldiers. He called on them to overthrow the Japanese government and restore the emperor; they mostly jeered him: “Stop trying to be a hero!” “We can’t act in common with fellows like you!” He’d contacted the media to be sure the news cameras were there. Returning to the commander’s office, he knelt and drove a foot-long dagger into his left side, then drew it across his abdomen. His disciple fumbled the killing blow, failing twice to decapitate him as Mishima shook in pain and gushed blood and intestines. Another would-be hero finished the job.

That morning, Mishima had left home wearing his dress uniform. On his desk was the finished manuscript of the last book of his quartet, The Decay of the Angel, and a note: “Human life is limited, but I want to live forever.”

3. Sightseer’s Misfortune

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Then we saw
Mishima’s dog
Trapped between the rocks
Blocking the waterfall

The first lines of “Heat,” the last song on Bowie’s The Next Day (the last next day), refer to a scene early in Mishima’s Spring Snow.

Mishima’s quartet is the life of Japanese man, Shigekuni Honda, and his friend, Kiyoaki Matsugae, who dies each novel to be reincarnated in the following book. Kiyoaki, dead of heartbreak and illness in 1914, is reborn as Isao, a nationalist fanatic who commits seppuku in 1931. Isao is reborn as Ying Chan, a Thai princess who barely seems to exist in the world until she no longer does (snake bite, 1952). She reincarnates as Tōru, an arrogant shipping clerk whom an aged Honda adopts in 1970.

Honda—rational, dull, slave to routine, dedicated worker, faithful husband in a loveless marriage, reader, voyeur, survivor—is the control. The experiment is his reincarnated friend, whose various lives embody passion, beauty, bravery, depravity, improvisation, a will for death. Honda “was certain he had played a part in the crystallization of Kiyoaki and Isao’s transparent lives…he was a kind of harbor and not a ship,” (The Temple of Dawn). The quartet is Mishima’s life of opposites split into two beings—one continual, one reoccurring, each needing the other.

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Spring Snow begins with Honda and Kiyoaki as teenagers on the latter’s family estate in 1912. They’re part of an entourage walking to a waterfall on a hill overlooking the manor. “It’s a beautiful day,” Honda says. “In all our lives, we may not have many like this.”

Though the hill has been sculpted to provide a gently-flowing waterfall, water is being diverted midway up the slope. A black dog that “probably had been mortally sick or wounded when it came to the stream to drink, had fallen in. The force of the current had wedged the corpse into the cleft of rocks at the top of the falls…[Honda] felt oppressed by the sight of the dog hanging dead in the falls under a bright sky only faintly flecked with cloud.” The party gives the dog a burial, an abbess leads the funeral blessing.

A water-washed corpse of an aimless dog spoils the careful designs of human beings. It harbingers Kiyoaki’s death, his subsequent deaths, and the slow corruption of his various reincarnations; it foretells the Kiyoaki estate being bombed to pieces by American planes during the war and Honda’s sad withering. It is time and doom.

Bowie uses “we”: his perspective both Honda and Kiyoaki, Mishima’s halves in a single eye. But the oppressive mood of “Heat” is far from that of Spring Snow, whose setting is a jewel of a prewar Japanese world. “Heat” is more a blasted landscape.

Referencing a Mishima novel was in keeping with how Bowie wrote much of The Next Day. His circle reduced, since the mid-2000s, to his family and a few friends, Bowie seems to have retreated into books (in a way, he lived Mishima’s childhood as an older man). So lines from Nabokov and Evelyn Waugh turn up in “I’d Rather Be High,” Carole Anne Duffy and Svetlana Alliluyeva in “How Does the Grass Grow?,” Robert Palmer (writer, not singer) in “The Next Day,” Mishima here.

It was an older type of songwriting—he’d written many of his first album’s songs by taking stories and characters from Alan Sillitoe and Keith Waterhouse. But it’s done far more obliquely and disjointedly here: a traceable reference links to an untraceable one, forming a lattice of broken images. The dog in the waterfall is the first square on the board; the rest of Bowie’s words are a series of jumps.

4. Hailstones From a Clear Sky

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So in the first verse of “Heat,” after the Mishima lines, come some purgatorial images—songs of dust, the night always falling. Then “the peacock in the snow,” suggesting a shot from Fellini’s Amarcord (a film about children growing up in a surreal Fascist Italy):

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Which in turn, as the artist Tanja Stark noted, has echoes in one of Jimmy King’s photo shoots of Bowie, from winter 2013:

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And jump-cut to Scott Walker’s “Jolson and Jones,” from 2006’s The Drift:

Gardens with fountains where peacocks had strutted
Where dead children were born

It’s not that Bowie set out a map and said, “all right, x will take you to y, from which you can find z.” He’d always worked at angles, in shadows, never spelling things out (even to himself), making the listener do the work. It was a holdover from his glam rock years. The crowd had made Ziggy Stardust; here, the crowd (no longer a crowd, but a group of solitudes listening to his songs on computers or phones) decides which path a song like “Heat” takes.

There was a parallel in the work of an old influence. The later songs of Scott Walker are full of lines with little to tether them but their being sung by the same keening voice. Walker wrote bloody histories via arcane words quarried from the OED or from art movies, set to apocalyptic music.

5. Calamity To Jane Is Calamity To John

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The exile thing is within yourself.

Scott Walker.

This blog’s gone at length into the connections between Scott Walker and David Bowie (see “Nite Flights” and “The Motel”; pack a lunch). For Walker, Bowie was of interest while he was making his 1978 album Nite Flights. For Bowie, Walker was nearly a lifelong influence.

A pop star in the Sixties, Walker spent much of his artistic life on the margins, while Bowie remained a genial mainstream presence (with some exceptions) whose secret ambitions were to be something like Scott Walker. In 1997, Bowie exhibited a painting titled The Walker Brothers Triptych. The three “brothers” were x-rays of himself, bracketed by then-collaborator Reeves Gabrels and the artist Tony Oursler. It’s a remnant of his most Walker-esque avant-garde period, the years of Outside and Modern Painters.

Then a funny thing happened in the 21st Century—the two swapped places. Bowie grew furtive, was out of the public eye; his life became speculation. Walker was, by his standards, a public figure.

Walker cut a song for a Pierce Brosnan Bond film, soundtracked Leos Carax’s Pola X, curated the Meltdown Festival in 2000, produced Pulp’s final album We Love Life, recorded a song with Bat For Lashes. He participated in a documentary about himself which he said he’s never watched, and let cameras into the studio as he recorded The Drift. Thanks to a sympathetic generation of music journalists, there are more interviews promoting The Drift and Bish Bosch than there are for the whole of his solo career pre-2006. He patiently explained what his intentions were, how the albums were recorded, how he was using his voice.

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He’s become, at 73, something of a cultural institution. While a few older fans may still harass him on the tube because “the stuff you’re doing now I fucking hate,” he’s mostly escaped at last being the glamorous Mod London Scott. Sporting skinny jeans and caps like a Williamsburg grandfather, he makes inscrutable albums that critics generally like.

Signing with 4AD in the 2000s, Walker was free to do whatever he wanted (if anything, 4AD pushed for “weird”). His late albums are as much a brand identity as the Scott albums of the Sixties. Their covers have muted colors, with photographs that could be lunar surfaces or microbe slides; tracks have titles like “Epizootics!” and “Psoriatic” and “Herod 2014.” You come to expect the sudden shifts in dynamics, esoteric percussion as primary rhythmic pulse, keening lead vocals that follow melodic lines unsupported by the backing music (or noises), abstract violence as organizing principle.

The Drift is a slasher film as art rock record. Listening to each track, you wait for the blow to strike—Satanic Donald Duck voice, horse-massacre horn, winter armies, massed strings summoned like ringwraiths. Walker’s voice is the only constant in a sequence of rapid set changes, his plaintive, haunted phrasings fall over telltale-heartbeat drums or gales of atonal strings. The Drift is the culmination of what he’d been moving towards since “The Electrician.” His masterpiece, it’s a brutalizing album to endure from start to finish.

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Bish Bosch, from 2012, works along the same lines, but there’s a growing sense of absurdity, as if the Walker project has reached its red giant phase (the title, Walker said, meant in part “job done, sorted”). Songs are longer, more ridiculous, goofier—the dog barks, fart and piss noises in “Corps de Blah” or how Walker’s ode to the fall of the Ceaucescus, “The Day the ‘Conducator’ Died,” has a lyric of multiple-choice personality test questions and ends with a snatch of “Jingle Bells.” At the same time, there’s a paring down—fewer strings, diminished basslines. “We just need to find silence and stillness to experience it,” Walker said.

Its gonzo peak is the 21-minute “SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter),” an oblique history of a 5th Century jester dwarf, stuck on a pole, who becomes a brown dwarf star. Much of the lyric is a historical catalog of insults, from Catullan digs like “for gross Gauls, who won’t leave our sheep alone” to Don Rickles jibes like “does your face hurt? Cause it’s killing me.” What best survives the long centuries? The put-down jokes.

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After decades of frustration, Walker had found a way of working that suited him. Keeping to a tight budget (he had to record all the strings in a single day, would have to wait months for a few days of studio time to open up), he would use a small group of studio pros who knew what to expect from him, and could process his instructions quickly. Machetes as percussion? Electroshock guitar? Crickets? It got done.

His albums sold enough to justify their production costs; he got enough press. He was as free as any artist can be in the 2010s. So he could sit at home and write his dark Saturday-crossword-clue lyrics (there’s a similarity to Mishima’s prose: Mishima “knew the exact word for everything,” friends recalled, and loved archaic and obscure terms, making his books difficult to translate). Then he’d map out chords on his keyboard, get much of the song set in his head, go to the studio and have his musicians give the rest of it to him.

A workable aesthetic. One that Bowie followed as if using a blueprint when making Blackstar.

6. The First Step Toward Salvation

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Don’t confuse the stage with the dressing room.

Mishima, Forbidden Colors.

I think authors should be sought in the books they put their names to, not in the physical person who is writing or in his or her private life. Outside the texts and their expressive techniques, there is only idle gossip.

Elena Ferrante, 2015.

As I write this, on a nearby table is Mick Rock’s photo collection of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period. The book is the size of a small tombstone. It’s a public life in glam stills, whether Bowie applying makeup backstage, on a train somewhere, or out on stage. A record of Bowie assembling a grand personality, as if building a temple, then walking around in it.

The critic Donald Richie once said of his friend Mishima: “He knew one of the great and best-kept secrets of being alive is that if you behave the way you want to be, you will become it. You become who you are by practicing it and, little by little, you will turn into who you want to be.”

Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period was him rigging himself into being a star. For the rest of his life, he’d tear down the stage dressing and do it again, and again. It wasn’t the way of Mishima, who’d spent the whole of his life building to his suicidal climax. His books, films, plays, interviews, actions feel aligned in a single rising movement, a unified performance, all his halves fusing to form the man standing on the balcony in 1970. When he killed himself, the Japanese were stunned; he had acted. “Mishima has gone and actually done what these rightists only talk about,” a Japanese policeman told journalists. “And it is not only the rightists who are stirred. Here in Japan, there must be thousands of frustrated people. They have no outlet for their pent‐up feelings.”

Mishima doing karate, practicing kendo, flying in subsonic aircraft, plotting revolutions, gutting himself, making sure the camera caught his right profile. For Bowie, he existed as image: heat and light, sun and steel. By contrast, there was Scott Walker, hiding in London studios, having drummers thwack sides of meat. Existing, as he had since the early Walker Brothers singles, as voice, as form without being, artist without biography. “I’m just trying to be a person singing without any personality or anything else particularly,” Walker said.

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‘A rare outcry
makes you lead
a larger life’

Scott Walker, “Cossacks Are

In 1982, in the months before he made Let’s Dance, Bowie starred in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, directed by Nagisa Oshima. Oshima had been Mishima’s leftist political rival in the Sixties. Bowie said he once saw a TV interview in which the two fervently argued with each other for what boiled down to the same ideals. “I qualify that by saying that the Japanese left and right are quite different from Western ideas of left and right, where it is estranged left and estranged right,” Bowie said in 1983. “In Japan both would have probably have roots in the same source than they might have over here. They both say, let’s stay Japanese. And when you’ve got that, you’re almost cancelling out everything else!”

In Mr. Lawrence, Oshima cast the musician Ryuichi Sakamoto as Captain Yonoi, head of a World War II prison camp for British soldiers. Sakamoto essentially plays Mishima (call the movie a battle for aesthetic supremacy between Bowie and Mishima, a war fought via actors). Yonoi is a pop star out of time, obsessed with his own honor and Bowie’s character, the prisoner of war Jack Celliers; he’s consumed by Celliers’ blond purity, his beauty, his refusal to obey. Both characters are driven by past shames: Celliers’ betrayal of his younger brother, Yonoi failing to die honorably after the failure of a coup he participated in.

At the film’s climax, to prevent the POW commander from being executed, Celliers breaks ranks and walks up to Yonoi, kissing him on both cheeks. Yonoi, outraged and in love, can’t act. He collapses in disgrace. Celliers is killed by being buried alive; Yonoi is executed at the end of the war, perhaps with the lock of hair he’d cut from Celliers still in his pocket.

7. The False Account and the True

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With its austere F-sharp major key, “Heat” seems like an outpost when compared to the rest of its loud, compressed album. It seems to play the curtain-closing role that “Bring Me the Disco King” did on Reality.

It’s a mix of Walker tropes. The usual “Electrician” moods, the Climate of Hunter fretless bass (Gail Ann Dorsey, playing an instrument she was unfamiliar with), the blurred instrumentation and semitonal shifts in melody and chords. The latter’s been a Walker trait since the Sixties—his hope of making “new chords” by binding contrasting tones together, strings hovering between tones.

The chord structure of “Heat” is sparse: a long stay on the home F# chord, then moving to the IV chord (B major, “songs of dust”) to a D major refrain (“I tell myself”); it’s a shift between E and F# for the coda (“I am a seer..”). But the F# chord shades, sometimes every two bars, to an alteration with a flattened fifth (so where an F# chord is F#-A#-C#, here it’s F#-A#-C). It creates tension throughout the track; it’s as if a landscape is being shrouded in mist, then uncovered.

Bowie sings a handful of notes, making pawn’s moves (rising only by second or third intervals). He does this often on The Next Day, hunkering down on a few notes instead of writing his usual octave-spanning lines, as if unwilling to stray out of his confines. A movement repeats like Morse code: a two-note rise for each phrase, F# to G# (“Mi-shima’s dog,” “tell my-self,” “love is theft“)). He only moves to a third note to close a section, whether circularly (“blocking the water-fall” is F#-G#-F#) or ambiguously (“pea-cock in the snow” ends on an A note).

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The arrangement clouds things further. The rhythm is a brusque acoustic guitar (Bowie?), the drums embellish (cymbals hiss on the chord changes), Dorsey’s bass is a softly persistent querying voice. Despite Bowie’s dominant position in the mix, the background—meshes of keyboards that hold on a wavering chord, guitars making solitary gestures, vocal loops, wary strings that finally burst into flight in the coda—is as much central to the track.

And while Walker is there in “Heat,” it’s a frozen conception of him. This is still the Scott of “It’s Raining Today” and “Nite Flights,” not the man howling and laughing on his latter records. The 21st Century’s Walker doesn’t exist here. Much of The Next Day is Bowie assessing his past, “sampling” it, playing cut-up with it. He does the same to Walker here—“Heat” feels like the end of a long admiration. A man finally packing things up, starting to look beyond the horizon.

8. Problems Spiritual and Financial

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All art is like the evening glow. It’s the burnt offering of all the best things of an era. Even the clearest logic that has long thrived in daylight is completely destroyed by the meaningless lavish explosion of color in the evening sky, even history, apparently destined to endure forever, is abruptly made aware of its own end. Beauty stands before everyone; it renders human endeavor completely futile…The present moment is all; the air is filled with a poison of color. What’s beginning? Nothing. Everything is ending.

Mishima, The Temple of Dawn.

Of “Heat,” Tony Visconti said “the lyrics are so bleak that I asked David what he was talking about. ‘Oh, it’s not about me,’ he said. None of these songs are. He’s an observer…He’s singing in his handsomest voice, a very deep, very sonorous voice. I can’t give too much away about it because honestly, I don’t know exactly what it’s about, if it’s about being in a real prison or being imprisoned in your mind.

“Tragic, Nerve, Mystification” are the last words in the list that Bowie gave the writer Rick Moody, in what would be his only public statement on The Next Day. The 42 words, in order, seem to have a structure: each three-word set corresponds to the equivalent song on the LP sequence. If this is “Heat” in miniature, the words fit. A tragic loss of nerve. Making an end by fading into the mystic.

The violence throughout The Next Day—dying men shoved in trees, high school shooters, traitors dangling from ropes—comes to a rest in “Heat,” which is a world bled free of killing as much as anything else. If The Next Day is a war album, the sad tale of how the 21st Century became more like the religious-war-plagued 16th Century than the world of Major Tom and the Saviour Machine, “Heat” is its tattered epilogue, its cease-fire.

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It has one of Bowie’s winking self-epitaphs: I am a seer, and I am a liar. A pun: a see-er, a seer. A man who only sees what’s right before him, or a prophet. And a liar, which he always claimed he was.

My father ran the prison. I’m not guilty, but you can’t believe a word I say, mind. I never wanted to be a rock star, he said in 1974. But I was there, that’s what happened.

It became a personal song in the sense of Self. Not ego-self or knowable self but in the way of whatever the Self is,” Walker once said of his song “Cue.” Who is singing “Heat”?

If much of The Next Day is a romp with his touring band, getting the gang back together for one last caper, “Heat” points to the end of Bowie’s recording life. You could call it a dock, from which he went off on a last trip.

Or a pier, which, as James Joyce once wrote, is a disappointed bridge.

9. Grand Finale

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You hear all these sounds that have just emerged since we started talking about the supernatural? That’s the sound of death … that’s what it sounds like when you’re dead … doors opening.

Bowie, “Bring Me the Disco King” video, 2003.

In 2014, Scott Walker recorded with a band, Sunn O))). The album, Soused, has the usual droning guitars and obscure lyrics but there’s something fresh in it. It’s an artist who’s been locked in his mind having to balance himself against a set of younger players (all members of Sunn O))) were born after the Scott albums were released). Though it’s a drone record, there’s a lightness of tone, a looseness of structure, that other Late Scott albums lack. It could be a one-off; it could be his future.

The same year, David Bowie was at a New York jazz club, sizing up a combo of musicians a generation or two younger than him. Donny McCaslin, after Bowie had hired his group for his new album, began exploring Bowie’s back catalog (he only knew the Eighties hits). But Bowie warned him off. “That’s old stuff. I’m into different things now.”

walkers

In the autumn of 1970, a few months before his suicide, Yukio Mishima mounts an exhibition of himself in a department store. It ranges from photographs of his stolen childhood to a recent series of homoerotic shots in which he’s posed as St. Sebastian, pierced by arrows.

In 2008, Scott Walker helps create Drifting and Tilting at the Barbican, in which his post-Eighties songs are performed live for the first time. He doesn’t sing them, nor does he appear on stage. Instead singers inspired by him (Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn) perform his songs. Walker is at the sound desk, watching his music escape him. He notes that most of the audience is well under 50.

It’s 2015. David Bowie Is, a museum exhibition of David Bowie’s life, moves from Paris to Melbourne to the Netherlands. Among the works on display is the painting of Yukio Mishima that once hung on a West Berlin wall. Bowie’s last public appearance is at the opening night of his musical; he sits and watches actors sing his songs to him.

Clear the waterfall, let the stream go where it will.

Drawing our brine cart along, how briefly we live in this sad world, how fleetingly!

Mishima, Runaway Horses.

dbmish

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

Credits: (Mishima) John Nathan, Mishima-A Biography (1974); Naoki Inose, Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima (2013); The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima (Arena, 1985); Mishima: His Life and Literature; Philip Shabecof’s “You’ve Heard of Yukio Mishima…”from the NYT, 2 August 1970, and subsequent NYT articles after Mishima’s suicide. Of Mishima’s novels, essential works include: Confessions of a Mask (1949), Thirst For Love (1950), Forbidden Colors (1951), The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea (1963) and his last quartet: Spring Snow (1968), Runaway Horses (1969), The Temple of Dawn (1970) and The Decay of the Angel (posthumously p., 1971). The essay Sun and Steel (1968) is critical for a sense of Mishima’s philosophy. Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), a fusion of Mishima’s biography and fiction, is worth watching, as is Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, of course! (Walker) In addition to sources listed in the previous entries (esp. No Regrets and Anthony Reynolds’ biography), I’m indebted to articles and broadcasts, 1966-2016, that I’ve listed here. (Walker, DB and “Heat”) ‘Crayon to Crayon,’ as always. Tanja Stark’s “Confronting Bowie’s Mysterious Corpses,” collected in Exploring David Bowie, is a compelling analysis of mortality in Bowie’s work.

For Kevin Smith, 1972-2016. Tell me all about it on the next bardo, Kev. For Rahawa, defeater of mountains.

Photos inc.: 1. DB, 1977 (unknown photog.); Johannes Eisele, “David Bowie Is… exhibit, Martin-Gropius-Bau museum in Berlin,” 2014; 3. Jeff Wall, After ‘Spring Snow’, by Yukio Mishima, chapter 34 (2000-2005); 4:  King, 2013; Amarcord (Fellini, 1973). All DB shots: King, 2013; 8: Mishima, 1968. 9: Bowie: self-portrait “D Head V,” ca. 1995; “Walker Brothers Triptych” 1996,”Head of Mishima” 1977.

Reissues: Cygnet Committee

May 31, 2016

In December 2009, I had been writing the blog for nearly half a year, at a steady pace. Readership was modest and comments were few—I imagine the majority of readers at the time were people who liked my old blog and wondered what the hell I was doing.

There’s an arc of inspiration when it comes to a sequential blog like this—initial burst of ambition and fleetness of movement; mild elation when the posts begin stacking up and you feel that the writing’s improved and that you’ve found the right tone; and the inevitable slackening of energy, “God, why am I doing this?,” inspired by a cold-eyed look at future obligations and knowing how much more unpaid work lies ahead of you.

So I likely would have given up around then had it not been for the wise choice to write about someone of whose early work I knew little, so that the blog was fueled by my curiosity as much as anything. I found late Sixties Bowie fascinating, even grim fare like “God Knows I’m Good.” But it was “Cygnet Committee” that did the business. I listened to it for the first time and thought it was just awful, an endless spiel of hippie blather. Further listens convinced me that it was brilliant, ghastly, draining, muddled, cutting, and so on. The blog entry wound up being a muddle itself, a cloudy response to a clouded song.

As I argue below (much of the book revision, minus the substantial end-noted material about Sixties radicalism [now there’s a selling point!]), I believe “Cygnet” was something of the same for Bowie—that it was a necessary song for him, a dark magic ritual, an extended middle finger to the Sixties. The Bowie we came to know would not have existed without it. Nor, as it turned out, would the blog, book, etc.

Originally posted on 8 December 2009, it’s the Cygnet Committee:

Lover To the Dawn.
Cygnet Committee.
Cygnet Committee (BBC, 1970).

“Cygnet Committee” was, consecutively, a break-up letter to a communal arts center Bowie co-founded, a scattershot attack on the counterculture and a desperate self-affirmation. Deep in this gnomic, nearly ten-minute screed was a struggle to find a workable design for the years ahead, Bowie pledging himself to a life of creative destruction while keeping clear of professional revolutionaries. It was the sound of Bowie willing himself to become a stronger artist, hollowing himself out to let a greater creative force, for good or ill, take hold in him. The possession took. In fleeting moments, you can hear the apocalyptic, utopian voice of “Five Years” and “Sweet Thing,” of “Station to Station” and “‘Heroes.’” The man who was able to write those songs had to go through the crucible of “Cygnet Committee” first.

Bowie and his lover/flatmate Mary Finnigan founded the Beckenham Arts Lab in May 1969, one of roughly 50 such Labs in Britain at the time. Along with weekly musical performances at the Three Tuns pub, the Lab (aka “Growth”) offered tie-dying lessons, poetry readings, puppet shows, lectures and mime routines. Hoping to attract local kids and subsequently “turn on their parents,” the Lab’s slogan was “Growth is people, Growth is revolution.” Bowie envisioned an escape valve for suburban dreamers; perhaps he saw the Lab as a way to find younger versions of himself. “There was nothing in Beckenham, just television,” he told a Dutch journalist at the time. “The lab is for extroverts who wish to express themselves, not for established artists.” This was Bowie as proud counter-cultural Beckenhamite, a character out of Hanif Kureishi’s The Buddha of Suburbia, which would gently satirize this era.

In August 1969, interviewed by Finnigan for the International Times, Bowie said he hoped “Space Oddity” became a hit because it would mean exposure and capital for the Lab. Using sparkling ad-man copy, he claimed “Arts Labs should be for everybody, not just the so-called turned-on minority. We need energy from all directions, from heads and skin-heads alike.” It could be a bit much. The guitarist Keith Christmas, who would play on Space Oddity, recalled Bowie being “a twerp in those days…strum[ming] a few folk songs in between a lot of crap about changing the world.

becknhm

Nothing in particular soured Bowie on the Lab, at which he’d play regularly until March 1970. By then he’d assembled a hand- picked artistic community at his house in Haddon Hall and no longer had to publicly recruit followers. Yet he was noticeably estranged early on. Roger Wootton, a Lab regular, recalled Bowie as being an “outsider” in the pot-reeking, student-infested Three Tuns shows. “He was never really a part of what was going on. He didn’t seem to be one of the other people.” As the most talented and charismatic figure in the room, Bowie resented the apathetic types the Lab attracted upon its (relative) success. He’d wanted collaborators and got spectators; his encounters with mediocrities in hippie garb spouting “revolutionary” slogans became a drain on him.

As he told the journalist Patrick Salvo, Bowie intended the first harmonically free section of “Cygnet Committee” to symbolize the ideal of the Lab. “It was saying—Fellow man I do love you— I love humanity, I adore it, it’s sensational, sensuous, exciting—it sparkled and it’s also pathetic at the same time.” His players make a staggered entrance, as if plugging in when the mood strikes them. Over a murmuring backdrop of Three Tuns-esque chatter, Bowie sang arcing, eleventh-spanning phrases while Mick Wayne, using a volume pedal, played off a descending chromatic bassline.

worthing

The leak of a Bowie & Hutch composition called “Lover to the Dawn,” demoed on the same tape as “Space Oddity” revealed Bowie had used “Dawn” as the basis of the opening sections of “Cygnet Committee,” from the opening riff and bassline (itself taken from Led Zeppelin’s “Your Time Is Gonna Come”) through the “they drained her [my] very soul…dry” section. And the long closing section Bowie appended to the reconstituted “Lover to the Dawn” was a bog-standard rock ‘n’ roll progression, the “Stand By Me” I-vi-IV-V sequence he’d used before (see “And I Say to Myself”). Regardless of its length and furor, “Cygnet Committee” was a folk number bluntly welded to a rock song.

“Lover to the Dawn” also shed light on what happened in the mutation that created “Cygnet Committee.” The original song starred yet another “Hermione” figure, called “bitter girl” in its refrains: a woman weary of the incessant demands of her lovers, who’ve drained her soul dry. The original refrain had a sympathetic Bowie and Hutch (“you gave too much and you got nothing!”) urging the bitter girl to get on with her life—it’s something of a hippie “Georgie Girl.”

In “Cygnet Committee,” Bowie cast himself as the bitter girl (not for the last time) and there was no larking Hutchinson to tell him to grow up and out of it. Instead, the self-pity of “Lover to the Dawn” got blown up to widescreen proportions. Bitter Boy isn’t just heartbroken, he’s set upon by parasites of all shapes; his tragedy isn’t personal but that of an entire generation. Its last venomous C major verse became a jeremiad, calling out New Leftists, cult leaders and cult followers, cursing hippie capitalists and their slogans (including “kick out the jams” and “love is all we need,” the revolution brought to you by, respectively, Columbia and EMI).

This extended damning of a movement of which Bowie was barely part requires a touch of context. The British underground lived in a bubble. Unlike in France, China and the US, British youth (apart from those in Northern Ireland) were passive and quiet, if discontented, in the late Sixties. There was nothing equivalent to the violence of the Democratic National Convention in 1968 or the May 1968 student riots in Paris. Colin Crouch, the student union president at the London School of Economics, saw the few substantial protests of the time quickly devolve into games of dress-up. British radicals seemed to get stuck on the idea of protest, raising protest “to a position of value in its own right,” Crouch wrote. “The sit-in became not so much a part of the sojourn in the wilderness for the chosen people of the revolution, but a trailer for the Promised Land.

student-march4_300

Bowie used this failure, the failure of the Arts Lab writ large, as a means to rid himself of the suffocating cant and pretense of the counterculture. In December 1969 he lamented the hippie set as being “the laziest people I’ve met in my life. They don’t know what to do with themselves. Looking all the time for people to show them the way. They wear anything they’re told, and listen to any music they’re told to.” As he sang, they knew not the words of the Free States’ refrain. He’d spent the last years of the Sixties burying himself in committees (“submerging myself,” as he told Mary Finnigan); now he was free.

So with its dead fathers and sons of dirt, the 39-bar-long closing verse of “Cygnet Committee” was the radical faction that took over the whole enterprise. The faceless villains who turned up, busy slitting throats, killing children and betraying friends, predicted the underground’s slide into cheap criminality. Yet the lyric, in turns grandiose, mocking (of Dylan’s “Desolation Row” among others) and fanatic, was more Bowie purging himself of “taste” and “narrative,” ridding himself of the stink of bedsit laments and cabaret, and exploring a inner darkness, calling up images of supermen, ringleaders, wraiths. The “talking man,” a summoned demon who gives the singer access to his “many powers,” would be the dark muse of The Man Who Sold the World.

As on “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed,” “Cygnet Committee” suffered from an under-rehearsed band, having to master a lengthy, harmonically dense song, that couldn’t deliver the searing accompaniment its vocal demanded (if you’re going to quote the MC5, you should lay down heavier fire than this, or at least ditch the harpsichord). The production did the song little favors, as the drums sound like paper and John Lodge’s bass goes missing towards the close. Bowie gave a more vital, if still ragged performance for a John Peel BBC broadcast of the following year. Despite occasionally bungling lines from his ramble of a lyric, he sang with an eerie sense of self-possession. “Cygnet Committee” had spent itself out in its making, its recording the afterimage of some lost primal inspiration. Still, in its tortuous way, it was as critical to Bowie’s development as “Space Oddity.”

Recorded: (“Lover to the Dawn,”) ca. mid-April 1969, 24 Foxgrove Road; (album) ca. late August-early September 1969, Trident. First release: 14 November 1969, Space Oddity. Broadcast: 5 February 1970, The Sunday Show. Live: 1969-70.

Top: Bernardine Dohrn, La Pasionaria of the Weather Underground, Chicago, September 1969; Bowie at the Arts Lab, Three Tuns Pub, Beckenham (Rex Stevenson), 1969; John May, the Worthing Workshop, ca. 1969.