The Duncan Jones Films

June 3, 2015

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

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

Bowie, interview in Japan, December 1978.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jones, interview, 2011.

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

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

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

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Moon: Sam, packed in a box

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

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

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

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Moon: Gerty, sympathetic God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

death
res
Moon: death and resurrection

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

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

jake-gyllenhaal-source-code1-600x398

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

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

scode

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

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

code

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

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


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Source Code: blue, blue, electric blue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

wwa

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

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


Survive

November 1, 2013

Anloo wheat field

Survive.
Survive (Omikron sequence).
Survive (video).
Survive (instrumental).
Survive (Marius DeVries UK single mix).
Survive (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Survive (Top of the Pops 2, rehearsal, 1999). (& another rehearsal.)
Survive (Top of the Pops 2, 1999).
Survive (TFI Friday, 1999).
Survive (live, Net Aid, 1999).
Survive (Cosas Que Importan, 1999).
Survive (Nulle Parte Ailleurs, 1999.)
Survive (live, 1999, later on single).
Survive (Musique Plus, 1999).
Survive (Later With Jools Holland, 1999).
Survive (live, 1999).
Survive (Quelli Che Il Calcio,’ 1999).
Survive (Inte Bara Blix, 1999).
Survive (TVE Spain, 1999).
Survive (Bowie at the Beeb, 2000).
Survive (live, 2002).

The End

We did record an awful lot of stuff, and there really was every intention of going through it and putting out Part II and Part III. The second title was Contamination, and boy was that accurate. And it would have been nice to have somehow done it as a theatrical trilogy. I just don’t have the patience. I think Brian would have the patience.

Bowie, interview by Ken Scrudato, SOMA, July 2003.

For two years after the release of 1. Outside, Bowie kept promising its sequel albums would appear by the end of the millennium, in conjunction with a theatrical production commissioned by the Salzburg Festival, to be staged in Vienna in 1999 or 2000. There also would be a CD-ROM piece of the Outside puzzle, optimistically scheduled for 1996.

Interviewed by Ray Gun at the end of that year, Bowie said 2. Contamination (“hopefully that should be out by spring ’97“) would have “some bearing on the first one, but it’s completely different. It goes backwards and forwards between Indonesian pirates of the 17th and 18th centuries and today…it’s really becoming a peculiar piece of work.” There were at least 25 characters in the piece now: whether these included the likes of Nathan Adler and Ramona Stone was unclear, possibly even to its composer.

Life intervened. Brian Eno sold his house in Britain and relocated his family to St. Petersburg1, while Bowie spent much of 1997 touring Earthling. The more unfeasible the Outside project seemed, the grander Bowie’s plans for it became.

In an April 1997 interview on the Mr. Showbiz website, Bowie said he and Eno had “formulated the storyline and decided to do it ourselves with no other musicians and to not meet while we’re making it…we’ll send the tracks back and forth between St. Petersburg and wherever I am.” Contamination’s Internet arm was carrying much of the dramatic weight by now (“we’d like to bump up all kinds of stuff on the Internet, so you get lots of photographic references…it’s kind of a Ripley’s Believe It or Not premise.”) While the 17th Century pirates were still in the mix, the “narrative” now also included diseases (“Ebola, AIDS, that new tuberculosis“), hence the title. Trent Reznor and Goldie were rumored to have been roped into it.

And even when the century was done and nothing had come about, Bowie wouldn’t let Outside go. In a web-chat in late 1999, he said he and Eno had recorded “over 24 hours of material. Problem is finding the time to sift through.” In February 2000, he told BowieNet users that, yes, finally, this would be the year he “pieced together” Contamination. Instead he re-recorded some of his old Sixties songs.

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So in the end there was nothing: no CD-ROMs, no websites, no Robert Wilson-produced operas, no new Nathan Adler diaries, no new albums. Instead Bowie had spent the last years of the 20th Century trying his hand at seemingly everything else but Outside sequels: acting in films, hosting The Hunger, launching BowieNet, agreeing to BowieBanc, planning a Ziggy Stardust film/website/play, scoring the videogame Omikron: the Nomad Soul (see the past month’s entries).

No more Outside chapters may have been a blessing. 2. Contamination and 3. Afrikaans (a rumored but never confirmed title, likely a fan’s doing) could’ve been Bowie’s version of the Matrix sequels: more clues! more characters! more time-hopping! And smothering Outside‘s atmosphere in sub-Neal Stephenson exposition and garrulous mythology. When some fans distributed hoax sequences of 2. Contamination (“Ebola Jazz,” “Segue: The Mad Ramblings of Long Beard”) and even fake Nathan Adler diaries it was as inspired an end to the project as any Bowie could have offered.

Still, the slow collapse of the Outside trilogy left a hole in his ambitions. It’s arguable his frenetic activity in 1998-1999 was in part him looking for something, anything to replace his grand millennial folly. But the album he released in the waning months of the 20th Century was something far different from his and Eno’s projects. Its title could have been Inside.

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Reeves Gabrels and I have written a lot in during the last few months and we might just record all these songs to see what will come out of it…We compose for the pleasure and our spectrum is wide, between purely electronic music and acoustic songs.

Bowie, Rock & Folk interview, 1998.

If ‘Hours’2 has a counterpart in the Bowie canon, it’s Diamond Dogs: both albums are salvage jobs, their tracks refugees from a set of other, mainly stillborn projects, assembled higgledy-piggledy yet somehow managing to have a unified tone.

‘Hours’ had a few tributaries. One was the aforementioned Outside sequels. If Bowie really had recorded a day’s worth of music with Eno for 2. Contamination, it’s possible that something from it—a chord sequence, a stray lyric or a top melody—wound up on ‘Hours.’3 David Buckley, who interviewed Reeves Gabrels and Mike Garson in 1998-1999 for his biography, recalled in 2011 that both had told him there was still a lot of material recorded that had never been used (whether this was the Leon suites from 1994 or newer Contamination tracks is unclear).

Then there was Reeves Gabrels’ upcoming solo album. Gabrels had taken one for the team in 1995 by promoting Outside instead of his own debut solo LP, The Sacred Squall of Now. The plan was for Gabrels to finally have a big-ticket release, with an LP of songs co-composed with Bowie. He and Bowie, working in Bowie’s house in Bermuda in late 1998, wrote what Bowie estimated variously as anywhere from 30 or 100 songs, some of which were intended for Gabrels, including “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell,” “We All Go Through” and “Survive.”

Finally there was Omikron. Bowie and Gabrels also were writing pieces that had to serve two masters: the songs had to work as incidental music for a game sequence as well as on a Bowie or Gabrels album. The songs needed less abrasive guitar, more “ambient” synthesizer and steady basslines; they needed to be structurally loose, so that pieces (a bridge or a chorus, say) could repeat over and over again if a player got stuck on a particular screen.

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By now, Gabrels was becoming creatively frustrated. He felt there should have been a follow-up to Earthling, cut in early 1998, to be the Aladdin Sane to Earthling‘s Ziggy Stardust: an elaboration and expansion of a sound, honed by months on stage. “The music had evolved, the band was playing great, the window of opportunity was there,” he told Buckley. So all the time that he, Mark Plati and Bowie had spent sifting through live recordings for a rejected live album was wasted: why couldn’t they have gotten Gail Ann Dorsey and Zachary Alford into the studio and cut a trio record?

So when he went to Bermuda in autumn 1998, Gabrels hoped for another start, that this could be finally the album he and Bowie had thought of making a decade ago, before Tin Machine had come along. An open collaboration, ranging from electronic music to hard, avant-garde rock, with no record label interests considered. After all, Bowie had a website now: he could just distribute the tracks to his fans should Virgin get cold feet.

Yet Bowie had different aims. Beyond taking the needs of Omikron into consideration, he was in a more traditionalist frame of mind. He’d enjoyed a carnival phase in the mid-Nineties; now he was in a Lenten mood. “There was very little experimentation in the studio,” Bowie said. “A lot of it was just straightforward songwriting. I enjoy that; I still like writing that way.”

This new album would be his severance from his Nineties obscurantist period: to make it obvious, he had the cover of “Hours” play on Michelangelo’s Pietà, with his new, somber curator persona cradling the dying “rave uncle” of Earthling. Both videos for the album would set Bowie in surreal domestic situations, with muted colors and lighting; the actor looking his age for once.

Gabrels conceded. As the album, as it took shape, was becoming somber and introspective, he needed to dampen down the guitars, to be sure that he wasn’t undermining the songs. It’s a small irony that the one album for which Gabrels received full co-composition credit is the one on which he’s essentially muted on guitar. And Bowie in turn wanted his vocals not to sound mannered. “I wanted to approach them just like a bloke. To give them a feeling of: anybody could sing these songs. They’re not difficult.”

hurr

Once he’d assembled enough songs for his own album (and so claiming the lion’s share of them—sorry, Reeves), Bowie began working on a narrative voice. He described this as being a distillation of some of his friends who, at age 50, were regretting their lives. “I’ve watched them flounder a little over the last 10 years, when they’re reaching that stage where it’s very, very hard to start a new life,” he told Gil Kaufman. “Some of them are affected with resignation and some of them, a certain bitterness maybe…they found themselves in relationships that aren’t what they had expected to be in when they were younger.”

You could call this a bluff, the equivalent of the man who asks a doctor about an embarrassing rash “a friend” has contracted. Sure Bowie was, by all accounts, happily married and would soon be a father again. He was rich, established, world-famous. Not that these conditions will prevent depression and regret from striking. But he was also creatively exhausted. He had fought and fought, for years, to make his music new again, to risk making a fool of himself on stage. Now his latest spectacle had failed due, in part, to his own lack of commitment; perhaps he was left wondering what he even had left to say anymore.

That said, the voice that Bowie used on much of ‘Hours,’ a melancholy sad sack, does seem crafted, even affected. The vocals are restrained, the lyrics are more quotidian, with dull rhymes and shopworn images. Was this in character, or was Bowie papering over, in his interviews, a sharp decline in his own songwriting? Was he charging his generation with his own creative depletion?

I’ll argue that ‘Hours’ is a flawed experiment, a secret parody: it’s Bowie attempting to do a record “proper” for a man of his age and stature. It’s his aging Baby Boomer lament album, his “September Songs” for a generation (the title played on unforgiving time and a common bond: hours/ours). He’d listened to nothing but his old songs before he wrote this album, he claimed, but he’d also obviously listened to his aging peers. Because ‘Hours’ is riddled with ghosts of old songs, with strains of lost singers: he’s mocking them, answering them, humbled by them. It’s one of his hardest albums to grasp, because it can be dull and ordinary and can feel strained: it’s like watching a once-great track runner struggling to run a 5k race. The question, left to each listener, is whether this mood is intentional: if the diminished figure in these songs is a subtle mask or if it’s simply the only voice Bowie could muster.

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“Survive” was the first track to be released from the ‘Hours’ sessions. Its title wasn’t promising.

As I wrote in the “Heroes” entry, Greil Marcus around 1975 had noticed the growing popularity of the word “survivor,” in films, on TV chat shows, and especially rock music: “Soul Survivor,” Street Survivors, “Survival,” “I Will Survive.” It seemed to me to speak for everything empty, tawdry, and stupid about the seventies, to stand for every cheat, for every failure of nerve. “Survivor” had once meant someone who had endured an unspeakable horror; it became an aging person’s self-deprecating boast. “I will get by…I will survive,” Jerry Garcia had tootled in 1987 (he didn’t, but again, neither will any of us in the long run).

So a song in which a 52-year old man sings about surviving seems emblematic of this rot: a reduction of life to its greyest elements. It could have been a song about his failing digestion. What saves “Survive” is the sour, occasionally defiant sense of regret in it: the singer’s not regretting a path he didn’t take, but simply noting that there are no more paths left for him anymore. In one interview, Bowie said that “there was a time in my life where I was desperately in love with a girl—and I met her, as it happens, quite a number of years later. And boy, was the flame dead! ” So it’s tempting to speculate that the woman in “Survive” came from a retrieved memory of Hermione Farthingale, Bowie’s lost love, who he’d used to symbolize everything he’d left behind in the Sixties. But the woman in “Survive” is still abstract to the singer, a place-filler he uses to stand for something else he can’t quite explain: a loss of his own potential.

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There are a few Sixties shadows in the track: Mark Plati’s Mellotron, the Beatles playing clubs, “Time Is On My Side,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (the guitar hook heard at the fade, of course referencing Bowie’s nicking of it for “Starman” too). But the song “Survive” answers, very obliquely, is Nick Drake’s “One of These Things First.

In Drake’s song, a young man sits and thumbs through possible lives: he’s like a boy watching soap bubbles floating in the air. “Could’ve been a sailor, could’ve been a cook.” He could have been reliable, steady; he chose not to be. He’s callous in how much he could hurt the person he’s speaking to. Could’ve been a real live lover, not the half-one that you got. “Could have been your friend,” he sings, attaching as much weight to that word as to his musings about being clocks and books. “A whole long lifetime/could have been the end.” Committing to someone would mean the end of his freedom, closing off all the other avenues that snake out beyond him. Drake wants to remain in the conditional perfect, in a happy state of possibility. He sings with graceful lightness, supported by Paul Harris’ piano, itself eager to break off into yet another line of thought, while Ed Carter’s bass is a squirrelly movement underground.

“Survive” turns up that singer again, finds him at the ebb of his life. No more mornings left for him. But he’s still committed to the what-could-have been, still bluntly denying reality, still wanting his space. “I should’ve kept you,” he mumbles. “I should’ve tried.” The verses seem to run out of breath, slouching into dull rhymes (“I should’ve been a wiser kind of guy“) and weary expiration phrases: “Iiii love you.” The choruses, feinting at a move to A major but winding up stuck back in the verse’s D major, struggle to voice the man’s few hopes. A descending bassline tugs him down to earth.

(Gabrels, who’d written much of the song’s music for his solo album, gets the best part in the play: the lead guitar, representing the noblest piece of the man who’s singing. Gabrels is the only bright color in the song: the little dancing phrase after “I miss you,” the counter-melody in the second chorus, the eight-bar solo that’s like a puff of hope uncorked from a bottle, the descending arpeggios that shadow the man’s growing ambivalence.)

He sees a woman across the floor somewhere, maybe at some class reunion. They could’ve been something once: they both know it, they both may not regret it. You’re the mistake I never made, he sings. She sees through him, as an old fraud, as someone who never settled for life in the hopes of finding something better. And he knows how she sees him, and that she’s right. But I’ll survive your naked eyes, as the song ends. There’s nothing but delusion, never was anything else but it (the song itself is a loop: opening and ending on the same Dadd9 chord, the two choruses bracketed by the two verses)4. The song ends with an older man’s sad defiance, which loses strength each time he says it, until he gives up and lets the song expire in his place.

Recorded April-early May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda, with overdubs at Looking Glass Studios and Chung King Studios, NYC. It was the first release from ‘Hours,’ issued on a promo giveaway with the 8-14 September 1999 issue of Les Inrockuptibles. Subsequently on ‘Hours’ and as a 2-CD single (Virgin 7243 8 96486 0 7, 7243 8 96487 0 6) released on 17 January 2000, which included Marius de Vries’ mix, the Walter Stern-directed video clip and a live performance of the song from the Elysée Montmartre, 14 October 1999. Performed on a host of TV and radio shows and played live in 1999, 2000 and 2002.

1: Eno told Mojo in May 1997 that he moved to Russia because “since London is now the hippest city in the world, I thought I’d get out for a bit…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.”

2: Yeah, the official title of the album is ‘hours…’ I’ll refer to it simply as ‘Hours’ in all further references because the lower-case affectation irritates me and having to put in three ellipses every bloody time I mention the album would be a bother.

3: That said, the most obvious candidate for a Contamination leftover, the instrumental “Brilliant Adventure,” is confirmed by Bowie to have been written in Bermuda and was intended as part of the Omikron soundtrack.

4: Both verse and chorus open shuttling between tonic and flatted VII chords (so D to C in the verse, A to G in the chorus), darken midway through with a run of minor chords and each closes by setting up the opposing key (so the verse ends with a G that the A major opening of the chorus resolves; the chorus just sinks back to D).

Top: Thierry Gregorius, “Anloo wheat field, Holland, 1999”; Bowie receiving honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music, May 1999; ‘Hours’ cover photos (Tim Bret Day); still from “Survive” video (Walter Stern); “Survive” CD sleeve.