Velvet Goldmine

April 16, 2010

Velvet Goldmine.

Those unfamiliar with Bowie (if you’re reading this blog, that likely disqualifies you) might assume that “Velvet Goldmine,” which Todd Haynes used as the title for his glam fantasia, was an essential track on Ziggy Stardust. But it’s an outtake from the Ziggy sessions, finally sneaked out as a B-side a few years later.

“Velvet Goldmine,” originally called “He’s a Goldmine,” had been slated for Ziggy‘s second side until Bowie recorded a new batch of songs in January 1972 to shore up the record. Rather than cutting an obvious dud (cough, “It Ain’t Easy”), Bowie gave “Velvet Goldmine” the chop. He said “the lyrics are a little bit too provocative” during a radio interview in February 1972. Really? “Sweet Head,” the other great Ziggy outtake, likely wasn’t fit for public consumption at the time, but “Goldmine,” while salacious enough (“you got the width of my tongue,” “I had to ravish your capsule, suck you dry”), isn’t much worse than, say, “Suffragette City.” Some writers have wondered whether Bowie felt the song was too openly gay: if so, that’s also odd since Bowie soon announced his homosexuality to Melody Maker and released an undeniably gay single (“John, I’m Only Dancing”) a few months later.

Bowie may have axed “Goldmine” because he thought it sounded a bit retrograde compared to the other Ziggy tracks. (And the thumping, eight-to-the-bar piano in the chorus does give it a music-hall feel, reminiscent of Hunky Dory tracks like “Oh! You Pretty Things.”) Still, “Goldmine”‘s got a moody, minor-key chorus; Ronson’s guitar smeared over the verses and culminating in a solo that sounds as if it was recorded underwater; a saucy Bowie vocal over a knotty verse (i.e., the sudden 3/4 bar on “close to my breast”); a wonderfully bizarre outro with massed whistles, hums, laughs and moans; and a lyric filled with lines like “I’ll be your king volcano.” One of the best tracks from the Ziggy period—cutting it was a blunder.

Recorded 11 November 1971. Released in September 1975 as a B-side to a “Space Oddity” single repackage (which would be Bowie’s first UK #1). Bowie later said the mix was rushed out without his approval. Included on various Ziggy Stardust CD reissues.

Top: Roxy Music, 1972.


It Ain’t Easy

March 11, 2010

It Ain’t Easy (first performance, BBC, 1971).
It Ain’t Easy (Ziggy Stardust).

“It Ain’t Easy” was written by the American songwriter Ron Davies, who was born in Louisiana and grew up in the Pacific Northwest. At age 20, he was signed to A&M Records and in 1970 released Silent Song Through the Land, from which the song comes.

It’s unclear how Bowie picked up “It Ain’t Easy”; some biographers have claimed Mick Ronson had been playing it with his old band The Rats. It wasn’t that obscure a song, in any event: both Three Dog Night and Long John Baldry had already covered it, and Dave Edmunds soon would. Bowie first played “It Ain’t Easy” in his glam hootenanny BBC session of June 1971, and the song worked well as a finale: the singers taking turns on the verses, uniting in the song’s cavernous, gospel-inspired chorus. The ramshackle performance was in line with the other rock & roll circuses of the period, like Delaney and Bonnie’s groups or Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen Revue.

Bowie went on to cut a studio version of the song a month later, and used it to close the first side of Ziggy Stardust, an alleged concept record in which it has no discernible role. Maybe he just loved Ronson’s fine slide guitar on the track, or thought the song’s simplicity (it’s mainly just two chords, D and A, with a C thrown in during the choruses) and rock & roll cliches (we get “satisfaction” and a “hoochie coochie woman” in the same verse) gave the LP some ballast. Still, the fact that it made the cut for Ziggy while “Velvet Goldmine” and “Sweet Head” were axed remains one of the minor mysteries of Bowie’s career.

Debuted at the BBC on 3 June 1971, while the studio version was cut on 9 July. Never performed live, as far as I know.

Top: Hush Puppies takes a counter-feminist angle to sell shoes, 1971. “When the ‘Libs’ call us names like that it really means they think we’re rugged, masculine, virile.”


Chapter Eleven: Tomorrow Isn’t Promised (1998-2000)

December 17, 2018

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Epigraphs   Eno: to Mark Sinker, The Wire, 1992; Pyzik: in Helibo Seyoman.

442  Trying to Get to Heaven  it appeared on a Virgin promo CD-R that also had a Danny Saber remix of “Fun” (photographic evidence on this Illustrated DB thread); Time Out of Mind: for instance, it topped OK Computer in the Village Voice “Pazz & Jop” critics poll of 1997; nice break in the cycle: Plati, on his website’s message board (reprinted on Teenage Wildlife); should just give up: to Michael Kimmelman, NY Times, 14 June 1998; Tim Curry: said to young CO at a press junket in October 1993. Curry was the villain in a now-forgotten remake of The Three Musketeers, and was talking about his performance in that film in particular.

443  Battle Hymn  As Bowie’s only singing the chorus, he could be singing “John Brown’s Body,” the song that “Battle Hymn of the Republic” was adapted from. But as his character Sikora looks as if he’s wearing a variant of a Confederate uniform, it would be odd if he was singing the Union marching song. Perhaps he’s doing so ironically; perhaps this is an alternate Earth where the Confederacy won; perhaps (here’s a guess) no one involved in the film had a clue about this issue; first release: it didn’t appear in the US until was issued, under the title Gunslinger’s Revenge, as a DVD in 2005.

444  Suite for a Foggy Day  apparently its official title, though the Red Hot + Rhapsody CD just uses the Gershwin title, which I also use as the primary way to identify this track; make it very Badalamenti: East Village Radio interview, ca. March 2014; transcription by Pieter Dom, 13 January 2016. There’s of course the story that Bono wanted to do this song but Badalamenti had already booked DB—I didn’t mention it in this essay because it seemed like the story had been recounted by 200 websites in the months after Bowie’s death, so I figured you didn’t need reminding.

445   Safe  oddly difficult to determine when exactly it was offered to BowieNetters. Its first physical release was on the “Everyone Says ‘Hi’” CD single, issued on 16 September 2002; a real old woman: The David Bowie Story, 1993; three hours reminiscing: Billboard, 26 September 1998. The reunion had begun a year or so before, but had a pause when Bowie apparently got irked with Visconti talking to Mojo in 1997 about how he and Mick Ronson had been essentially co-composers of some of The Man Who Sold the World; far beyond my wildest dreams…doesn’t fit in: MTV News, 9 October 1998.

446  objective piece: to Stuart Clark, Hot Press, 10 November 1999; more internal…world really is: to Chris Norriss, Spin, November 1999. Responding to a fan query on a web-chat on BowieNet (27 April 1999), Bowie said:

At the time of Ziggy, there was so 
   much more going on in my head than just the idea 
   of a new synthetic rock star
<David\bBowie> that I want to fully explore all the 
   fragments that made up in my own mind the Ziggy 
   world.
<David\bBowie> And hopefully I'll be able to do 
   quite a complex overview in 2002.
<David\bBowie> And it will have great shoes...
<hj> 28BebeBuell says:rnSpeaking of Ziggy will the 
   1980 Floor Show ever see the light of day again??
<David\bBowie> What a charming name, Bebe...
<David\bBowie> I'm very keen to try and get this 
   released and I would like to combine it with 
   outtakes from that night.
<David\bBowie> It should be this century...maybe 
   next century, but we've all got patience haven't 
   we?

info-packed maps: Hot Press, 10 November 1999; Ziggy’s parents perspective: shown in a plot sketch included in the David Bowie Is exhibit; I’ve found bits and pieces…keeping the sound of the material in the period: Radio One “The Net” interview, 23 July 1998 (Ziggy Stardust Companion is a good source for more details about the ‘Ziggy 2002’ project.)

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447 Velvet Goldmine:  Haynes sent Bowie an early version of the script and asked to use seven songs (“All the Young Dudes,” “Sweet Thing,” “Lady Stardust,” “Moonage Daydream,” Bowie’s cover of “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Lady Grinning Soul,” and the title track). Despite lobbying by Michael Stipe and Kim Gordon, Bowie denied Haynes permission. “When I saw the film I thought the best thing about it was the gay scenes, the only successful part of the film, frankly. The film didn’t understand how innocent everyone was then about what they were getting into Also there was a lot more shopping,” Bowie said to Andrew Davies (The Big Issue, 11-17 January 1999); so ecstatic about Tommy Stone: Haynes, conversation with Julia Leyda, 29 March 2012; got really nervous: Jones, 379.

448  running like fuck from that one…slack-arsed script: to Michael Dwyer, Rolling Stone (Australia), June 2002.  Mother   it’s unclear whatever happened to this Lennon tribute album, still unreleased as of this writing. You’d think at some point, tracks recorded for it would have come out, as seemingly everything else Lennon-related has; lonely little kid: quoted in Jonathan Cott’s Days That I’ll Remember; journalist saw him: Martin Hayman, Rock, 8 October 1973. “At the corner of the settee nearest the fire…sits a familiar figure, eyes half closed, head bowed, nodding gently, almost imperceptibly, to the pain and anger of John Lennon’s “Mother” growling out of a loudspeaker at each corner of the spacious hunting lodge room…you might think he was falling asleep were it not for the slight tightening of the eyebrowless forehead at the compelling anguish of the shrieking fade-out.”

449  stepping stone: to Jérome Soligny, Rock et Folk, December 1998; first attempts at manipulating music in a computer: Visconti message to Bowie Wonderworld, ca. September 2006 (the year I believe “Mother” was bootlegged).

450  20th Century Boy    we were in key at least: Melody Maker, 17 April 1999; old Judy Garland thing: Gay Times, December 1998.

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451  New Angels of Promise The Omikron: The Nomad Soul version appeared on the 2004 ‘hours…’ 2-CD reissue.  BowieNet: users were charged $20 a month to use it as their internet service provider ($6 for a no-frills subscription). After four months of operation, it was reportedly valued at $500 million (as per Time Out, December 1998), though Bowie was skeptical about how much he really was earning from it: “I can’t even buy a packet of cigarettes on the proceeds from this fucking thing…There is no money in what we do. It’s like being in the silent movies”; Subeez Café: 30 September 1998 BowieNet web chat. I’m being mean in choosing these particular questions—there were some funny and perceptive ones, too; almost metaphysicalon the cusp of something: BBC2 Newsnight, 3 December 1999.

452  once everyone can sample…no longer church: Bowie, chat on Eden.vmg.co.uk, 2 February 2000. Interviewed by Yahoo! Internet Life in 1999, he predicted music would soon be “on tap” through computers like water. But touchingly, he still imagined that record stores would remain central to music consumption, predicting that clerks would download tracks for you from some licensed database. “You go in and you’d ask the assistant for the menu and you choose exactly what tracks you want. And then they’ll be burned into a CD—if you’re that old-fashioned—or put onto a player”; bit Bond Street: Mojo, October 1994; core competencies: Financial Times, 26 January 2000; Bowie bonds: among the more misunderstood things that Bowie was ever involved in. He didn’t “go public,” he didn’t put himself on the stock market, fans almost certainly couldn’t have bought them, etc. For more, see the blog post; Bowie’s trading desk: to Forbes, 4 March 2000 (“People don’t wake up in the morning and say, ‘Gosh, I’m really turned on by my bank,’ says Goodale, but he and Bowie didn’t see why something that is useful, like online banking, couldn’t also be sexy and fun.”) To Peter Paphides (Time Out, December 1998), Bowie said “when I was a kid, music was the fascinating alternative future. But now it’s just another career choice such as banking or being a travel rep”; BowieBanc: run by USABancShares.com Inc. It’s worth briefly recounting the history of this company. In 1887, the Peoples Thrift Savings Bank was founded, which thriftily endured for a century. Then in 1995 an investment banker named Kenneth Tepper bought it, renamed it BankPhiladelphia (mashed/multi-capitalized bank names were in vogue), bought other local banks and merged their operations, took this company public, renamed it again to USABancShares, which increased its valuation from $18 million to $350 million in four years. Its internet bank division launched in 1999, of which BowieBanc was the first big venture. Bowie had no exposure to USABancShares, put up no capital, and was paid for the use of his name and image. So he was possibly the only person left unscathed from the venture, which had a mere 1,500 depositors by mid-2000 and lost $9.7 million that year. Tepper resigned in March 2001; the bank was delisted by Nasdaq and traded for a dime a share (“the expectations on us and on technology in general were unrealistic,” Tepper told the Philadelphia Business Journal (1 April 2002—much of the above comes from various Philadelphia Business Journal articles of the period).) USABancShares was soon sold to a company run by its former chief financial officer, which in turn went out of business in 2017; Zysblat: FT, 26 January 2000.

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453   Boz as a patchwork quilt: Game Center, 25 October 1999; plenty of strip clubs: New Zealand Herald, 26 June 1999.

454  man does not hear: Herron, Call of the Cross, “The Divine Method of Culture,” 74.

455 Jahangir labeled “Jangir” on the Omikron game booklet, so I threw in both names.

456  Survive first distributed on a promo giveaway CD included with the 8-14 September 1999 issue of Les Inrockuptibles. It was also 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.

457  composed throughout the year: descriptions of the ‘hours’ composing/recording process as per Gabrels to CO, August 2018; window of opportunity was there: Buckley, 463; stripped-down affair…music for Omikron: Plati interview with Trynka, ca. late 2000s; see what will come out of it: Rock et Folk, December 1998. “Reeves Gabrels and I have written a lot in during the last few months…We compose for the pleasure and our spectrum is wide, between purely electronic music and acoustic songs.”

458  had my druthers, not put out an album…how I tend to think: to Robert Phoenix, Dirt, 5 October 1999; full album in London: Gabrels to CO, August 2018; Diamond Dogs quality…fretless bass: Ives interview, 20 February 2017; looking where songs would land: Trynka interview, ca. late 2000s.

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459 just like a bloke: Chris Roberts, DB interview tape for Uncut, 29 July 1999; circle of friends…feel claustrophobic to me: Ives interview, 20 February 2017; evolves as an artist…why he’s not old: David Bowie Story, 1993; wrinkled, shaggy-haired: AP, 9 September 1999; every cliché in the book…poignant, sad life: to Jim Sullivan, Boston Globe, 9 February 1997.

460  people get mellow…aren’t true to their lives: to Stuart Maconie, NME, 13 September 1991; flounder a little…when they were younger: to Gil Kaufman, ATN, October 1999; living a lie or mistake: Liquid Love, 55; boy was the flame dead: Roberts tape, 29 July 1999.

461 Something in the Air   The American Psycho remix appeared, unsurprisingly, on the soundtrack of Mary Harron’s 2000 film and was later collected on the 2004 ‘hours…’ reissue.

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462  terrible conflict…it’s terrible: ATN, October 1999; present sensibility…so has the future: Roberts tape, 29 July 1999; pairs of chords: both verse and refrain open by 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 refrain just sinks back to D); faux novelist: ATN, October 1999; Peacock: to Bill Reynolds, Crawdaddy, April 1989. Bowie had been a fan since the early Seventies, having his Astronettes record Peacock’s “Seven Days” in 1973, and had apparently wanted to work with Peacock on what became ‘hours…’ But as with Bowie’s oft-expressed wish to work with Glenn Branca, the collaboration never came to be.

464 Brilliant Adventure    luverly instrumental: DB, web-chat on BowieNet, 4 July 1999; something very odd came from all this: Bowie, 24 August 1998 web journal entry.

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465   Thursday’s Child   BowieNet members voted on the single mix: both the “Radio Edit” (their choice) and the “Rock Mix” (guitars trace over the synths; Bowie lead vocal sounds like it’s being routed through a metal tube; gargle-orgasm-drum fill break) appeared on the UK/EU CD single; a “Hip Hop Mix” was never released. A longer (by ten seconds) version is in Omikron: The Nomad Soul: this version, titled the “Omikron Slower (sic) Version” was included on the 2004 reissue, as was the Rock Mix; Eartha Kitt:  in addition to titling her autobiography, Thursday’s Child was also one of the Kitt LPs released in Britain in the Fifties; prediction rhyme: altered during the 19th Century, perhaps to bring it more in line with Christianity, as Friday was now “full of woe” and Sunday got some of Thursday’s glory.

466  teeth-grinding get it done guy: Roberts tape, 29 July 1999; her friends rather than grown-ups: Buckley, 471.

467  We All Go Through   faux-psychedelic: DB on BowieNet, 27 July 1999; a series of transitions without scenes: Momus, 10 January 2014.

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468  Seven  the album’s third single, 17 July 2000 (Virgin 7243 8 96928 2 2, UK #32), a CD that included the DeVries Mix, the “demo,” the album version, a live version from the Kit Kat Club, NYC (19 November 1999; another live recording is on the “Survive” single) and Beck Mix #1. All but the live version were included (along with Beck Mix #2) on the 2004 ‘hours’ reissue; song of nowness: VH1 Storytellers performance, 23 August 1999; seven days to live…the present is the place to be: to David Quantick, Q, October 1999; each day to be really good…until death strikes: to Charlie Rose, 31 March 1998; only the person the greatest number of people believe I am: Q, October 1999.

469 Pretty Things Going to Hell a different mix (notable mostly for the occasional sub-Nine Inch Nails loop) was issued on 24 August 1999 on the Stigmata soundtrack, though oddly another mix (jacked up in tempo) was used in the actual film (both tracks are on the 2004 reissue of ‘hours…’). The Omikron: Nomad Soul “performance” is the Stigmata soundtrack version. An edit of the album version was issued as a lead-off single in Japan and Australia, and as a promo-only CD single in the US. A live NYC performance (from the Kit Kat Club, 19 November 1999) is on the “Seven” single; something more rambunctious: ATN, October 1999; their day is numbered…very serious little world: Roberts tape, 29 July 1999.

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470   I wrote a song about stand-up: ATN, October 1999; low ugly simple perfect: to Buckley, 472.  We Shall Go to Town   Confusing its B-sides, Virgin listed the track as “We Shall All Go to Town” on the CD single; key track…less jolly than Thursday’s Child: Ives interview, 20 February 2017.

471  done in a heartbeat…went to town as it were: Plati to CO, April 2016.

473  What’s Really Happening   very soul searching: Roberts tape, 29 July 1999; impertinent, scanned well: ZDTV interview, shot at the overdub session, aired 14 June 1999; color commentary: BowieNet transcript from 24 May 1999.

474 Jewel    pursuit of the new…diverging from what I needed: Buckley, 476. That said, Gabrels soon took his own traditionalist turn. For his Rockonica, he went analog. “Having spent the previous six years using Logic/Pro Tools on everything I wrote or produced…I was pretty tired of the “man alone in front of a computer” thing. In fact, that whole treated-drum-loop-electronic-rock-band-vibe that I was into in the middle of the last decade seemed soooo tired out to me,” he told Music Dish. “While you can’t fault the technology (computers don’t make boring music, people do), I just felt like to record digitally would have been so very, very nineties.”; becoming too VH1…imposing my will: to Kenneally, October 2000 “Noneradio” interview; drug myself to death: to Trynka, Starman, 376; workload got heavier: to Spitz, 384.

475  descriptions of the “Jewel” session via RG to CO, August 2018, and Bowie’s web journal entries, 1998-1999. Sector Z    overriding feature: Visconti, Brooklyn Boy, 342; we freaked out: Gutter to CO, February 2014 (source of recording details in this entry). Gutter once played a prank on Visconti in which he called him up pretending to be Bowie, not knowing that Bowie and Visconti were now regularly talking to each other.

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476  Hole in the Ground  As Toy, as of this book’s publication, is still a bootleg, it couldn’t appear in the Discography (well, it could have, I suppose). The sequence of the 2011 leak, which has not been verified as the intended release sequence, is: Uncle Floyd*/Afraid*/Baby Loves That Way/ I Dig Everything*/ Conversation Piece/ Let Me Sleep Beside You/ Your Turn to Drive (Toy)/ Hole in the Ground*/ Shadow Man/ In the Heat of the Morning*/ You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving/ Silly Boy Blue*/ Liza Jane*/ London Boys. (* = tracks or mixes still unreleased); Anthony Newley stuff: Q, April 1990.

477  invigorated sense of purpose: ATN, April 1997; re-recording some early songs: Bowie web journal, 29 October 1998; Up Date I: Bowie web journal, 3 January 2000; waste the energy of a show-honed band…sing till my tits drop off: Bowie journal, printed in Time Out, 21-28 June 2000; weren’t out to reduplicate original tracks: Plati essay for The Voyeur, April-Sept. 2002.

478  belting his brains out: to Dan LeRoy, Greatest Music Never Sold, 42.

479  her vibe would be perfect…arsenal of eccentric instruments…beg it to stay together: Plati, Voyeur, Aug.-Sept. 2002; cool drones, like a John Cale vibe: Germano to LeRoy, 47; hard to believe they were written so long ago…in the Sixties: 28 September 2000 Bowie web journal.

480  Pictures of Lily   glam version of Crazy Horse: Plati web journal, 1 November 2000.

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481 Afraid   until he had the goods: LeRoy, 53; interesting deceit: quoted in Pegg, 15.

482 everything will be alright: Bowie web journal, 23 May 2002.

483 The Uncle Floyd Show: the life of Floyd Vivino and the Uncle Floyd Show comes from a number of sources including Amy Krakow’s profile for New York (21 January 1980), Jack Silbert’s NY Times interview with Vivino (8 December 2002) and most of all Beth Knobel’s profile, written as the show entered syndication, for the Columbia Daily Spectator (21 July 1982). Other details are from a long-shuttered website run by Floyd Show alum “Muggsy” (http://archive.is/I6boc); show’s production values: One example of the show’s rhythms: R. Stevie Moore is playing “Sit Down” on the Uncle Floyd Show in 1980. After the performance, Uncle Floyd greets each member of the band. The guitarist blankly says that his guitar is wrapped in a sheet of newspaper from the day he was born (“well, that’s different,” Floyd says). Floyd vaguely insults the bassist, while the drummer is hostile (“can you shake my hand at least? Don’t you wanna meet me?”). Throughout Floyd is calm, unruffled, a king; Bones and Oogie: “If you didn’t know about Uncle Floyd, you’d think the characters in the song were Bowie characters,” Bowie introducing “Slip Away” on A&E, 23 June 2002; living room in New Jersey: Bowie web journal, 23 May 2002.

484  doing a song about me: NY Times, 8 December 2002; semi out of tune piano: Plati web journal, 1 November 2000; Mark Ryden painting: LeRoy, 42.

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485  Toy is finished and ready to go: BowieNet chat, 4 June 2001; complicated scheduling negotiations: BowieNet, 4 July 2001; new material over Toy: BowieNet, 29 October 2001; Bowie would never talk about it: LeRoy, 60; new writing takes precedence: quoted in Pegg, 403.

486  so much more haunting: LeRoy, 55; a nicer time…anxiously into the future: Rolling Stone, June 2002.

487 Isn’t It Evening  one street guy in there: to Jeff Slate, Music Radar, 26 February 2013; almost like making a demo: to Gerry Galipault, Pause and Play, 9 December 2003; doing a little something: Billboard, 31 December 2003; seven rough pieces: to Lisa Sharken, Vintage Guitar, March 2004; sat around for a long time…just had a thing: Plati to CO, April 2016.

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488 Nature Boy   resurrect the audience: to Harvey Kubernick, 2006 (collected in Kubernick’s Hollywood Shack Job); eden ahbez: Born George Alexander Aberle, in Brooklyn, 1908. We first meet him in Los Angeles in 1947, failing to get backstage at a Nat King Cole concert at the Lincoln Theater. He gave Cole’s manager a soiled, rolled-up score for “Nature Boy.” Cole was taken with it, but the “eden ahbez” on the score had no known address (ahbez said only God was entitled to capital letters). After scouring the city, Capitol executives (at least according to PR legend) found him camped underneath an “L” of the Hollywood sign. By summer 1948, Cole’s “Nature Boy” was a #1 pop hit, soon covered by Sarah Vaughan and Frank Sinatra. Cast by reporters as the embodiment of his song, ahbez was an ur-hippie, promoting vegetarianism, outdoor living, “Eastern” philosophies, and a live-off-the-land-or-someone’s-couch ethos. (In the Sixties, he hung out with Donovan, had his songs recorded by Grace Slick and attended Beach Boys Smile sessions; R. Crumb’s “Mr. Natural” was partially based on him). He stayed in California for the rest of his life, spending his last years working on a book and album, neither of which he finished. He died at 86, in 1995. (Sources include Ted Gioia’s entry on “Nature Boy” in The Jazz Standards; the marvelous blog dedicated to ahbez, “Eden’s Island“; a profile of ahbez for Life, 10 May 1948; and Brian Chidester’s “Eden Ahbez: The Hippie Forefather’s Final Statement to the World,” LA Weekly, 18 February 2014.)

489  Yiddish pop song: “Nature Boy” is just two 16-bar verses, with slight harmonic and melodic differences between the two. Its D minor progression has a chromatic descending bassline for the boy’s roam over land and sea in the middle bars and feints at a shift to A major at the end of each verse. Most of its phrases are pegged to the notes of each underlying triad (“was-a-boy,” “then-one-day” etc. are A-F-D, the notes of the underlying D minor chord (D-F-A) and so on). Scrapping ahbez’s waltz meter for a free rubato, Cole leisurely scaled ahbez’s wide intervals (like the octave leap-and-fall of “there WAS a boy”); Luhrmann: to Jones, 418-420.


Chapter One: New People (1976-1977)

October 6, 2018

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Epigraphs    Shaftesbury: pen name of Albert Webster Edgerly, late-19th-Century American reformer/con man who promoted healthy eating (particularly of whole grain cereal), “probationary marriage,” teeth brushing, and eugenics. He wrote over a hundred books: “The New Race” is an essay in one of them, Cultivation of the Chest; Or, The Highest Physical Development of the Human Form (1895); von Wolzogen: quoted in Berlin: Culture and Metropolis, 98; Kino-Eye: as per subtitles of the now out-of-print Image DVD.

20   Sister Midnight    Hansa Tonstudios: Hansa began as a label, production company, and publishing firm founded by the Meisel brothers in 1962. In the Sixties, the brothers regularly used the future Hansa by the Wall Meistersaal, booking time from its then-owner, the Ariola label. They also built their own studio, Hansa Tonstudio 1, where The Idiot would be mixed (and possibly have some last overdubs). Tonstudio 1 was not in the same building as Meistersaal Tonstudio 2 (where Low overdubs and mixing & vocals/tracking for “Heroes” were done) and the less grand Tonstudio 3 (where Lust for Life was cut), both of which were on Köthener Straße—Hansa had bought the latter studios in the mid-Seventies. The original Tonstudio 1 was located at Nestorstraße 8-9, in Halensee. When it closed at the end of the Seventies, a “new” Tonstudio 1 was built in the Köthener Straße location (sources include a Hansa profile in the 22 January 1977 Billboard.) As per Tobias Rüther, Hansa engineer Eduard Meyer’s diary lists Idiot mixing sessions for 21-22 and 28 August 1976—I gave a slightly broader range of dates; engineered: Meyer and Tony Visconti did enough significant work on the album that they likely should be credited, too; first release: Iggy album release dates of the period are harder to determine than Bowie’s. In this case, I went with Kevin Cann’s Chronology, published in 1983 and closer to the time than most other sources: Cann lists 18 March 1977, a Friday. The Idiot is reviewed in the 19 March 1977 Record World, the 26 March 1977 Billboard, the 28 March 1977 Village Voice, the 5 March 1977 Melody Maker, and Cash Box notes it first being added to radio playlists in its 19 March 1977 issue; live: while there are claims that Pop played Sister Midnight live in 1990, I didn’t find any bootlegs to verify this; trailer park: the Osterbergs lived there until 1982; Jim Bowie: Pop to Paul Trynka, Open Up and Bleed, 19. Trynka’s biography is by far the best depiction of Pop’s early life in Ann Arbor and a key source of details here; city administrator’s daughter: Sally Larcom. “It’s hilarious when I remember how straight and smart he was,” she recalled of her ex-boyfriend (Michigan Live, 23 June 2008); studded with rivets: recollection of Cub Koda to Trynka, Bleed, 39; sort of smelled out: 2009 Pop interview in Benjamin Piekut’s Experimentalism Otherwise, 182.

21   guys were over my head: to McCain and McNeil, Please Kill Me (PKM), 367; used to work off the age: to Roy Trakin, New York Rocker, No. 25, December 1979/January 1980; Corrs: eyewitness account on this ILX thread, 23 July 2002; hear words musically: to Chris Roberts, Sounds, 18 October 1986; I was the worker: to Mat Snow, Q, September 1988; 24-hour job: Cynthia Rose interview with Pop, from an undated 1980 issue of Viz (a UK art and fashion magazine, published 1979-1981); who cares if we’re not the best: one of the Whiskey a Go-Go shows in September 1973; against the wall: to Dave Marsh, Zig Zag, December 1970; one-piece life: NY Rocker, Dec. 1979/Jan. 1980; proximity of the electric hum: I Need More, 60.

22  need the freedom: quoted in Joe Ambrose’s Gimme Danger, 31; rock and roll reality that Iggy lived: PKM, 122; both escaped from LA…no fixed address: to Jim Sullivan, Boston Globe, 8 July 1990; watching Bowie doing: NME, 12 March 1977; never showed bad form: Bleed, 202; all the shit I know: PKM, 252; I think that was liberating for him: to Edwin Pouncey, The Wire, November 1999; important young actors: to Ben Edmonds, Circus, 27 April 1976.

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23  sweet but stupid: to Lester Bangs, Creem, March 1975; Hunter: Charles Shaar Murray, NME, 5 April 1975; Château d’Hérouville: for more on Bowie’s history there, see the Pin Ups chapter in Rebel Rebel. Bad Company cut Burnin’ Sky there between the making of The Idiot and Low; the Bee Gees wrote “Stayin’ Alive” there not long afterward. Having closed in 1985, the studio was abandoned “to weeds and squatters” for nearly two decades until being put on the market in 2013 and sold to a trio of French musicians. A restored studio was set to open in 2018 but as per its website, it remains “currently under restoration”; great rock ‘n’ roll studio: recalled by Thibault to Trynka, Starman, 253; compositional drought: “I was very unhappy with my writing style by the end of Station to Station. I thought my work was deteriorating,” Bowie told Lisa Robinson (Hit Parader, June 1978). Station to Station had only five original songs, one of which, “Stay,” was essentially a rewrite of “John, I’m Only Dancing”; fought for royalty advances: despite having just had a successful tour, Bowie was nearly broke at times in summer 1976. His MainMan-era royalties were reportedly in escrow due to his split with Tony Defries, and Thibault recalled Bowie having no cash for day-to-day expenses; first days of June: Bowie was in Switzerland for his son’s birthday on 30 May 1976: The Idiot sessions began within days after that; poor Jim: to Kurt Loder, Sound + Vision booklet interview, September 1989; Santangeli…suivons!: Bleed, 206-207. Thibault told Trynka that French musician/engineer Michel Marie played guitar in some tracking sessions, including the unreleased “Iggy Pop Don’t Stop” (see appendix). Edgar Froese also was slated to play synthesizer on the album but never got called to the studio—he went home after getting sunburned by the pool.

24  not seeing superheroes…godlike: Circus, 27 April 1976; cut your hair: Hughes, writing in Classic Rock, 26 September 2016; I was a guinea pig: to David Fricke, Rolling Stone, 19 April 2007; you fucking idiot: to Glenn O’Brien, Interview, April 1990; point of view of an idiot: to Thomas Vinterberg, 4 July 2002 TV interview; a little too much of me: Radio One interview with Stuart Grundy (Rock On), broadcast 29 October 1977.

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25   possibly demoed: Pop recalled that Bowie played him a four-track demo of “Sister Midnight” in LA in February 1976, so the song almost certainly preceded the tour; gigantic system built at Olympic [Alembic? see next]: Alomar to John Schaefer, WNYC Soundcheck, September 2010; sounds I was fascinated with: to Trynka, Mojo 219, February 2012 [someone on Tumblr had a good point—this may likely be an Alembic system, though it’s written as “Olympic” in Mojo—they’re homonyms, so it’s easy to see how the error happened if so]; Sister Midnight: shot between 1967-1974, its director Mays described the film as being about five young people who get high, then “enter as a group into a series of multiplexed dreams.” One girl, “Sister Midnight, allows one of the guys to enter her mind. As a result of this invasion she is reborn” (Mays, Film Works). See the NSFW trailer (soundtracked to “Baba O’Reilly”). It’s quite plausible that Bowie knew of the film, as it reportedly premiered in LA in June 1975, before he left for New Mexico to shoot The Man Who Fell to Earth; played live: debuted in Vancouver, 2 February 1976 (video footage exists of a rehearsal performance there). Its last extant concert recording is Philadelphia, 16 March 1976 (it’s not in the set in Boston, the following night). While it may have been performed in one of the last, un-bootlegged US shows that month (New Haven or Springfield), it didn’t survive the crossing to Europe; Radio-Activity: along with the Ramones’ debut, which Bowie told Pop showed that “the world hasn’t forgotten the Stooges”; Stacy Heydon: one of quite a few musicians whose name has been misspelled in Bowie or Bowie-related LP liner notes. It’s Stacy, not Stacey: that’s how he’s referred to in a CBC profile in 2016.

26  this record is bent: to Stephen Demorest, Phonograph Record, April 1977; mother: Pop sang that he’d made love to potatoes (or maybe? the Turtles—it’s a muddy vocal) during his Dinah Shore performance in 1977; Harrison console: a solid chance it was the same 3232 Harrison desk on which Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” was recorded; I love noises: Thibault to Bradley Banks (http://idiotlust.blogspot.com), 23 January 2008.

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27  Funtime   Dinah!: it aired on 6 May 1977. Other guests included Rosemary Clooney and the Miracles. A note (within a note): though I’ve listed Iggy Pop live performances, I didn’t do the same for solo Iggy broadcasts. The data on the latter is spotty, and it just was taking up way too much research time for a book about Bowie’s songs, not Iggy’s; we want flesh: The Ticket That Exploded, 54; my love song: Phonograph Record, April 1977; range of a fourth: with emphasis on the root (D) note of the D5 chord. When the chord shifts to E major for the solo, the spoken “we’re havin’ fun” is on that chord’s dominant note (B); make moneylittle gay: quoted in Adams, Complete Iggy Pop, 87; Lila Engel: inspired suggestion of Greg Smith.

28  Baby   live: he debuted it at the Teragram Ballroom, LA, on 9 March 2016. “This is a good little song off The Idiot”; torn apart in his heart: to Hideaki Okada, Music Life, 23 April 1977 (an interview tape that was on YouTube for a time, but appears to be gone. Some excerpts are transcribed in Roger Griffin’s Golden Years).

29  Tiny Girls   there’s allegedly a bootleg of Pop singing “Tiny Girls” for the only time in his life on stage—at Tsubaki House in Tokyo, 22 June 1983. As I couldn’t track down this tape, I didn’t feel there was enough evidence to mark the song as having been sung live. If the setlist is indeed genuine, it appears that “Tiny Girls” was sung as part of a medley that also included the standard “One For My Baby”; released: a quasi-official Iggy box set issued in the mid-2000s has an alternate mix roughly 15 seconds longer, with a slightly-different saxophone track; she destroyed me, man: NME, 3 May 1975. In 1979 Pop ranted to Kent that “all the bitches, all the women, want me now…Well, I hate women!”; little girls in Berlin: NY Rocker, Dec. 1979/Jan. 1980.

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30   Dum Dum Boys   broken-up group: unspecified 1997 interview, quoted in Wilcken’s Low, 42; Straight: a play on Williamson’s nickname, “Straight James”; we were outcasts: Bleed, 58; basic Archie Bunker juniors: quoted by Jon Savage, Dazed & Confused, 1997.

31   wandering tribe: to Bill Holdship, Detroit Metro Times, 7 October 2009; like a sociologist looking back: Phonograph Record, April 1977; intro: Bowie would get Pop in the vocal booth and tape him recounting stories of his misspent youth, with the vague idea of making a spoken-word album. It’s possible the opening of “Dum Dum Boys” came out of this; you jerk!: quoted in Dave Thompson’s Pretty Face Is Going to Hell, 259. “You know that little part on ‘Dum Dum Boys,’ that Boweeeewaaah? That’s his part, that’s David doing that.” (“Boweeewaah” was his guitar trademark, as he’d contributed a similar sound to “Fame”); Palmer…bend that note more: Bleed, 210. Ray and Dave Davies’ nephew, Palmer was summoned via a 2 AM Bowie phone call to Munich in early August 1976. He recalled to Trynka walking into a darkened room full of guitars and drum kits (property of Thin Lizzy, who were recording Johnny the Fox during the day—Palmer helped himself to their effects pedals), while Bowie and Pop sat in the control room, giving cryptic instructions; metal groups: unspecified 1997 interview, quoted by Wilcken and Ambrose; it’ll be me: Pop to Nick Kent, NME, 3 May 1975; Dum Dum Boys: the song would name a Norwegian and a California band, and it was Stone Gossard’s suggested name for what became Mother Love Bone, the ur-Pearl Jam.

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32   China Girl   Pop’s “China Girl” was issued as a single in the UK in May 1977 (RCA PB 9093); Bowie’s remake in May 1983. The latter’s David Mallet-directed video included a homage to the beach scene in From Here to Eternity, with an oft-censored shot of Bowie’s ass; live, 1985: an unrecorded Pop/Bowie performance with Ron Wood and Steve Winwood at a Pop gig at the China Club, NYC, 5 November 1985; politely drunk: Pop, interviewed in Krautrock: The Rebirth of Germany (BBC, 2009), where he uses a power drill to open coconuts between questions; blundering blustering: Phonograph Record, April 1977.

33   Brando: Neil Young’s “Pocahontas” has parallels to “China Girl”— written around the same time, with a similar relationship between the white singer and his non-white title subject, and a Marlon Brando cameo.

34  bubblegum: to Buckley, Strange Fascination, 338; misjudged the length: Bob Clearmountain recalled “I could see the wince on Vaughan’s face. I said, ‘I’ll fix it,’ but David jumped in and said, ‘Don’t touch it. It’s perfect.’ We looked at each other, but David insisted. He loved the spontaneity.” (Wall Street Journal, 26 March 2011); invasion and exploitation: DB intro to VH1 Storytellers performance, 23 August 1999; fairly angry but it’s loving: Musiek Expres interview tape for a June 1983 feature, apparently conducted ca. March 1983, as Bowie references Vaughan as being in his touring band; Nguyen: “David Bowie m’a embrassée. Il était beau, j’ai pris peur…” Journal du Dimanche, 17 January 2016. Nguyen also wrote that she played “devil’s advocate” in a dinner conversation with Bowie (translated by Higelin? did Bowie speak enough French to communicate with her?) by defending Soviet communism—“in the name of this utopian, beautiful idea of ​​sacred unity for human beings”—against Bowie, who “was obsessed with the loss of freedom, he never missed a criticism of the Soviet regime.” The argument began when Bowie heard her reciting Pushkin in Russian, and it’s possible the idea of using a Dostoevsky novel’s title started here.

35  Mass Production   a child transfixed: Bleed, 210; zombie deadpan: Kent, NME, 12 March 1975; cities devoted to factories: Gimme Danger, 176.

 36  Nightclubbing    live: Pop sometimes sang the first verse in German during 1977 performances. Scott Thurston didn’t want to play “Nightclubbing” on Pop’s late 1977 tour because “I thought it was too drippy” (PKM, 434); lyric: Pop credited Bowie with “we walk like a ghost”; lousy drum machine: Pop remembered it as an “odd little Roland.” Trent Reznor sampled it for “Closer”; only Iggy Fucking Pop: South Bank Show interview, December 2004.

37   incredible coldness and deathly feeling: Phonograph Record, April 1977; Wardour Street: Bleed, 209.

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38  What in the World    ARP: Bowie and Eno never said which ARP synthesizers were used on Low. Top candidates are the ARP 2600 (a three-oscillator analog synth dating to 1971), the Odyssey Mark I (ca. 1972: a “suitcase” edition (two oscillators) of the 2600 that was meant to compete with the more affordable Minimoog; Roger Powell played one of the former on Bowie’s 1978 tour), and the Axxe (a smaller version (one oscillator) of the Odyssey, and reportedly used on The Idiot). One clue is the apparent use of a ring modulator (found on the 2600 and Odyssey but not the Axxe) on tracks like “Speed of Life” and “Weeping Wall,” though the latter most likely had an ARP Pro Soloist (ca. 1972) as its main synth. A commenter on the Vintage Synth boards noted that the Pro Soloist’s “Fuzz Guitar 1” preset is almost certainly heard on the track, adding “you can hear that Bowie has put Vibrato as a Touch Sensor effect in both cases, which you can hear him pressing harder then releasing in places, and then around 2:15 you can hear that he has added Growl as a Touch Sensor effect on the Clarinet preset.” The ARP Solina String Ensemble is a strong candidate for “Sound and Vision” at the least. The Solina, with a four-octave keyboard on which you could play violin, viola, trumpet, horn, cello and contrabass sounds, was popular among disco producers of the late Seventies; Rimmer EMI: possibly Eno’s EMS Synthi AKS temporarily renamed in honor of the composer John Rimmer; engineered: no credits listed, so my surmise is Thibault and Visconti for the French sessions, Meyer and Visconti for Hansa; Musikladen: a date maddeningly hard to verify. Consensus has it at 30 May 1978, but 29 May has also been cited. Maybe they shot it at midnight; tempo: Bowie’s last live versions, in 2002 as part of his revival of Low, restored the studio version’s tempo; Roy Young: A member of the Rebel Rousers in the early Sixties, Young was once called “England’s Little Richard.” He was in the house band of Hamburg’s Top Ten Club in 1962, playing with Tony Sheridan and Ringo Starr, and occasionally with the Beatles at the neighboring Star Club. (He and the Beatles cut backing tracks for an unreleased Sheridan single (“Sweet Georgia Brown”) in May 1962.) Young was still a hellion in 1976, making gin and tonics between takes at the Chateau, keeping a bucket of ice on his piano. Sending up cocktails to the control room proved disastrous, with Bowie found asleep or drunk at the console soon afterward; Farfisa: used on Eno’s Another Green World, the organ was being revived at the time by Jimmy Destri in Blondie and Jools Holland in Squeeze; Syd Barrett: he was “singing through the gloom,” which Barrett in turn had taken from James Joyce’s poem “Lean Out of the Window.”

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39   anima: a concept by Carl Jung, and an inspired suggestion of a commenter known only as “Norsey.”   Speed of Life    descending progression: Eb-Db-Bb-Ab, or I-VIIb-V-IV. Compare any 1978 live version to the Low track. The former are easier on the ear, with the verses given a rich, flowing bed of synthesizers to make the chord changes fall more smoothly.

41   A New Career in a New Town   Lennon: his earthy playing (he treated his chromatic harmonica like a one-key blues harp) is a key part of the sound of the early Beatles, from their first singles to album cuts like “Chains,” “Little Child,” and “I Should Have Known Better.” There’s a sharp drop-off in Beatles harmonica by late 1964, with the Dylan-tinged “I’m a Loser” marking the end of the line: a sign that the band thought the sound was becoming old hat. Lennon’s harmonica is heard only a few times more in the Beatles years (“All Together Now,” “Rocky Raccoon”), and his last recorded harmonica performance was his glorious solo on “Oh Yoko!”; chord progression: C-Am-F-G, or I-vi-IV-V, the “Fifties” progression (see “Five Years” in Rebel Rebel); Mr. Bloe: The B-side of an early Tony Orlando single, “Make Believe.” As songwriter Kenny Laguna recalled, he and his partner Bo Gentry dusted off the backing track of a “Mony Mony” knock-off single called “Bingo Bingo” and “improvised a haphazard harmonica and melodica overdub” (via Laguna’s website.) Called “Groovin’ With Mr. Bloe,” as performed by “Mr. Bloe,” the track became a UK #2. David J, in a Facebook post (1 June 2016), recounted that there was a Fifties-style jukebox outside Bowie’s dressing room during The Hunger shoot. After J punched up the Bloe 45, “Bowie was smiling all the while and well . . . grooving with Mister Bloe. Somehow I summoned up the audacity to make a statement. “This reminds me of something.” To which D.B. responded: “Oh, yeah? What’s that then?” “It’s one of yours!” “Yeah? Which one?” “It’s off of ‘Low.” “Yeah? Well, which track?” “Eh, ‘A New Career In A New Town?” And with that, Bowie put a finger to his lips, winked and carried on dancing!”

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42   Always Crashing in the Same Car    crashed Mercedes: Thibault to Trynka, 2005 “He told us he has to sell his Mercedes…It was a big class Mercedes and the value of the car was terrible because he’d had a car crash. So they offered only a very low price. David was very angry because he said that the Mercedes was paid for by RCA as an advance in royalties and it was very, very expensive and they wanted him to sell it for nothing”; like being in a car: The David Bowie Story, 1993; hardest one to get right: Mojo, February 2012.

43  spooky, not funny: Visconti, response to query on his old website (https://archive.is/YtKC8)   Sound and Vision   Low’s first single, it did well in the UK but died in the US—by April 1977, RCA took out ads in industry trades all but begging for Top 40 disc jockeys to play it. Top of the Pops 2: performed in the set, as per fans who attended the taping, but never aired; live: sung once on the 1978 tour, at Earl’s Court, a recording that first appeared on the semi-bootleg RarestOneBowie. Revived at the end of the Eighties, “Sound and Vision” titled Bowie’s career compilation and subsequent greatest-hits tour. A ghastly 1991 remix appears on the Rykodisc Low, while 808 State’s remix was issued as a David Bowie vs. 808 State 12″/CD-single the same year. A 1’50” reworking for a Sony’s Xperia Z was released as “Sound And Vision 2013,” and with hope, that’s the end of it; ultimate retreat song: to Michael Watts, Melody Maker, 18 February 1978; deep blue: this excerpt, which Bowie gave to Cameron Crowe in 1975, is in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Archives. Quoted by Martin Schneider in Dangerous Minds, 31 July 2015; hand-cranked gramophone: “David had some odd requests, and it was my job to fulfill them. He was a vegan (sic) and more or less lived on milk and large amounts of cocaine which isn’t that easy to come across in the desert. I also found him a wind up gramophone. He used to sit alone in the white sands winding it up and listening to vinyl records for hours on end.” David Cammell, Man Who Fell to Earth’s producer (Daily Telegraph, 10 November 2016); greenie-grey light…buy your own groceries: to Charles Shaar Murray, NME, 12 November 1977.

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44  Crusaders tune: to Ralph Denyer, Sound International, September 1978; chords: in G major, so G-Am-D-G (I-ii-V-I), with the subdominant chord held back until the refrain, where it’s pitted against the tonic chord (C6 (“I will”) G (“sit right down”).)

45  theme from Deep Throat: a truly inspired discovery by Owen Maercks in 2017; not become a casualty: David Bowie Story, 1993.    Be My Wife   a promo shot by Stanley Dorfman in Paris in late June 1977 appears to reference earlier Bowie videos—Bowie’s flailing, awkward body movements parody his Jagger-esque moves on “Let Me Sleep Beside You” while the white-room setting and washed-out lighting invoke the promo for “Life On Mars?”; he just can’t be bothered: Momus comment on ILX, 10 October 2004.

46  genuinely anguished, I think: Melody Maker, 18 February 1978; merely sad: recalled by Annie McDuffie, who saw DB’s 5 February 2004 show in Phoenix.

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47  Breaking Glass   mangled treatment: to Chris Roberts, Uncut, October 1999; aggressive guitar drone: to Rob Hughes and Stephen Dalton, Uncut, April 2001; hit one A note: Music Tech, 26 November 2014.

48  Eventide H910: Unveiled in 1974 (Yes’ Jon Anderson advised on the prototype), it had four knobs (input level, feedback, anti-feedback, and manual control) and eight buttons to regulate delay and output. It was invented by Eventide engineer Tony Agnello, who envisioned it as a means to pitch-correct wayward vocals or brass (NYC’s Channel 5 would use a Harmonizer to downward pitch-shift audio of I Love Lucy reruns that they’d sped up to squeeze in more commercials). Visconti had already used earlier-model signal distorters, like the Digital Delay and the Keypex, on his mixing of Diamond Dogs; fucks with the fabric of time: see any Visconti interview in the past 15 years; feedback of the tone…man hit in the stomach: Visconti, Brooklyn Boy, 237; how hard he hit his snare: to Michael Molenda, Electronic Musician, 19 April 2007; as big as a house: Sound International, September 1978; eccentric and listenable: to Rüther, Heroes, 48. Meyer added that “the glissando lowered the punch on the (snare) drum down to the basement.” In 1978, Bowie took credit for the sound!, telling Michael Watts that “I mixed up the bass very high…and did very extraordinary and naughty things to the snare drum sound…I wanted the snare drum to disintegrate. I was incredibly bored with the drum sound one hears, especially the American drum sound of the last 4, 5 years, the big, heavy, upfront bass drum, the make-it-sound-like-a-wooden-box that’s been there ever since “I Can’t Stand the Rain.” It doesn’t cut it anymore. So we fooled around with the drums and found that when we treated the whole drum kit it started to get back to a sort of psychedelic sound so we picked out different drums and treated them all individually. We found that corrupting the snare drum definitely put the whole thing out of focus with the normal perspective on how drums have sounded”; punky…did that shit the day before!: Five Years.

49  don’t normalize it: David Bowie Story, 1993; Tree of Life: to Uncut in 2001, Bowie said “it is a contrived image…it refers to both the Kabbalistic drawings of the Tree of Life and the conjuring of spirits.”   Subterraneans    Used as the opening movement of Philip Glass’ Symphony No. 1, premiered in August 1992. Scored for: 2 flutes, piccolo, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, Eb clarinet, bass clarinet, bassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, bass trombone, tuba, 4 percussion (side drum, tenor drum, bass drum, glockenspiel, triangle, chimes, tambourine, cymbals, castanets, tam-tam, woodblock), harp, piano, strings (8 first violins, 6 second violins, 4 violas, 4 celli, 2 double bass).   Strick: Circus, 28 February 1977; New Music: the album’s name apparently changed late in the day, as New Music was the title on first-run cassette labels in Canada, and it was also apparently on some promo issues, as  Ian MacDonald, reviewing the record in January 1977, referred to that name as if it was the album’s subtitle; manic disco…interesting shapes: to Miles, NME, 27 November 1976.

50  hence he brought in Eno: to George Cole, Record Collector, January 2017; soundtrack work: Music for Films was issued in a limited edition in 1976 and, with a revised track list, to the general public in 1978; David, Peter and me: Record Collector, January 2017; back into music again: Alan Yentob TV interview (Arena Rock), filmed in Cologne and broadcast 29 May 1978; faint jazz saxophones: to Tim Lott, Record Mirror, 24 September 1977.

51   16-bar refrain: As per the 1977 Low songbook, the sequence is: bars one to four: 3/4, 4/4, 4/4, 3/4 (“A”); bars five to eight: 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 3/4 (“B”); bars nine to twelve: 3/4, 4/4, 4/4, 3/4 (“A”); bars thirteen to sixteen: 2/4, 3/4, 4/4, 3/4 (“B”); phonetics: Melody Maker, 29 January 1977.

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52  Art Decade  It was credited solely to Bowie until being changed to “Bowie-Eno” on All Saints in 1993 (the original, privately-issued version of this compilation) and subsequently on the European 2005 reissue of Stage. Possibly the latter was an error caused by referencing the first All Saints, as the credit had never changed on various Low reissues. The recent box set has restored the original sole-Bowie credit; sound made completely physical: quoted in Sheppard, Faraway Beach, 63-64; blast of synthesizer nonsense: to Lenny Henry, GQ, September 1996.

53  fecundity: Eno’s work of the 1973-1976 period includes (solo vocal LPs) Here Come the Warm Jets, Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) and Another Green World, (solo vocal singles) “Seven Deadly Finns” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” (instrumental albums) No Pussyfooting, Discreet Music, Evening Star, and the original Music for Films, (producing & “Eno-izing”) John Cale’s Fear, Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, Phil Manzanera’s Diamond Head, the first Penguin Café Orchestra album, Robert Calvert’s Lucky Leif and the Longships and more; more of a technologist: to Steven Davy, Beetle, January 1975; credited: It was happening before the first album came out (e.g., “Bowie’s newest, produced by Eno,” in a Low preview in the Soho Weekly News, 9 December 1976.) In 1999, Visconti told Uncut “David’s set the record straight many times since, and of course my name is in the credits as co-producer with David. How rock journalists continue to make that mistake is beyond me. Come to think of it, I don’t recall Brian ever setting the record straight.” In his NME review of Low, MacDonald praised “Eno’s treated snare drum” sound; German music: Bowie claimed in 1999 that “I took it upon myself to introduce Eno to the Dusseldorf sound with which he was very taken,” a recollection that may have surprised Eno; in Germany, he found something: to Stubbs, Future Days, 347.

54  wasn’t associated with rock: to Rob Patterson, “The Real David Bowie Stands Up,” Indiana Gazette, 7 January 1978 (this article was syndicated, so it wasn’t done for this newspaper); I needed somebody to work with…empathetic git: Rock On, 29 October 1977; cello: Meyer interviewed in Mike Christie’s Hansa Studios: By the Wall, 1976-90. “So when you listen to the track, you listen to a cello orchestra, played by myself.”

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 55  no hope of retribution: Record Mirror, 24 September 1977.  Warszawa  It was used as the basis of the third movement of Glass’ Symphony No. 1.  pockmarked with bullet holes: as described to Trynka, Bleed, 205.

56  Żoliborz: A northern district, west of the Vistula river and a roughly twenty-minute walk from the station; Plac Komuny Paryskiej: Paris Commune Square. It was restored to an earlier name, Plac Wilsona (after American president Woodrow Wilson, proponent of Polish independence), in the Nineties. I differed from my usual approach in recounting this story, which remains legend—to my knowledge there are no photographs of Bowie walking in Warsaw in 1976, nor has anyone else on that trip (e.g., Pop, Andrew Kent, Schwab) recalled this walk, I believe. But it’s far from improbable—it seems very much like the thing Bowie would have done. The story feels true, and ought to be in any regard; emotive, almost religious feel: Melody Maker, 18 February 1978; sonic scenarios: BBC Hard Talk, 11 May 2016; single notes: NME, 27 November 1976; melody against bass: JazzTimes, 15 May 2016; root notes instead of chords: In September 2016, a blog commenter “Tyrell” broke down the song’s structure brilliantly and greatly improved my original analysis. So: the opening melody is A-D-G-F. From F the melody goes to E, but as the root note remains A, this now sounds like an A major chord. When the melody started by Visconti’s son appears— A-B-C—the underlying chord changes to C major. The main melody (or first part of the “theme”) moves from F# major to D# minor to C# major, reaching a peak with an A# chord. After a repeat, there’s a third sparkling little melody, an upward movement that begins B, F#, B, F#, etc. After the theme section, the chords are F# major, F# minor, E major. The root note is now E, so the “solo vie milejo” section seems as if it’s in E major (Bowie sings a G#) while the “cheli venco deho” section feels more like E minor (Bowie sings a G). “After “malio” the root note goes from E to A (E-F-G-A) and it remains A during the second part of the sung section. At the end of this (after the last “malio”) it goes back via A-G-C and C# to the key of the main melody, which closes the song; musical picture of countryside in Poland: Melody Maker, 18 February 1978.

58  Polish folk songs: to Filip Łobodziński, Machina, January 1997; Polish choir as a child: to Watts, Melody Maker, 29 January 1977. Over the years, this statement has evolved into Bowie playing a “Balkan boys choir” album at the studio; phonetic language that doesn’t exist…different kinds of tensions: Okada Music Life interview, 23 April 1977; nice-sounding words: NME, 27 November 1976.

59  sinister: Pyzik to CO, February 2011. Her Poor But Sexy expands upon her thoughts here & is greatly recommended.    Some Are  Currently only available on the All Saints and iSelect compilations. The basis of the second movement of Glass’ Symphony No. 1.   bittersweet songs: Wilcken, 129, citing a “recent biography” that claimed this.

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60  wolf: Mail on Sunday, 28 June 2008; free-association: idea from Anthony Teague (whose name I misspelled as “Heague” in Rebel Rebel; apologies again, Anthony).

61   All Saints   electronic loops: to Pegg, 18 (all references in these notes are to Pegg’s seventh edition, from 2016);  label: the label in turn was named after All Saints Road in Notting Hill. Its first releases were holdovers from Eno’s Opal Records, which had closed in 1991.   Weeping Wall    works it out in his head: Heroes, 76; Meta-Musik Festival: after the performance, Bowie introduced himself to Reich. “And [he] then writes “Weeping Wall,” which sounds like “Music for 18 Musicians,” Reich told Alex Tween of The Gothamist (15 November 2013). The date of the 1976 festival is oddly hard to determine: one source has it as 5 October. Held in West Berlin in 1974, 1976 and 1978, the Festival was programmed by Walter Bachauer, an appointee of the German Academic Exchange Service (Deutsche Akademischer Austauschdienst, or DAAD), a government-run body indirectly funded by the Ford Foundation. The DAAD favored avant-garde and American artists to foment “freedom of expression” as part of West Germany’s cultural war with its eastern half; no regular beat…Bach, Stravinsky…irrational relationship: Reich interview with Jonathan Cott, 1996.

62  phasing: “What you really have is a unison canon or round where the rhythmic interval between the first and second voices is variable and constantly changing. “Phase” was just a technical word I used at the time to refer to the function of the tape recorders” (to Cott, 1996); out of phase with the original…new timbre that is both instrumental and vocal: Reich, Writings on Music, 76; vibraphone: “lying around in the studio,” as Meyer recalled to Rüther. It was an early version of the vibraphone (a marimbaphone with a distinct vibrato), built by the instrument’s creator, Herman Winterhoff, in 1916; bassline: in standard notation in the Low songbook, “Weeping Wall” is 97 bars of 3/4 time (the same time as much of “Mallet Instruments”), with a 16-bar outro faded halfway through. The synthetic bassline is four measures of a single note that’s repeated six times per bar—it starts with D, then A, F, B, G, B, G, E, G# and so on, patterns emerging as the piece proceeds; accumulative piece: David Bowie Story, 1993.


Reissues: Word On a Wing

September 1, 2016

A good place as any to close the “reissues” series, which I hope you’ve enjoyed or tolerated. This is one of the essential Bowie songs of the Seventies, and as such it’s weird, beautiful and a touch over-the-top.

As the man said at the end of the past century, “1975, 1976, and a bit of 1974, and the first few weeks of 1977, were singularly the darkest days of my life. I found myself up to my neck in such negativity. And it was so steeped in awfulness that recall is nigh on impossible, certainly painful…unwittingly this song was therefore a signal of distress. I’m sure it was a call for help.

Back “live” at some point this month. Have a good rest of the summer.

Originally posted on 16 December 2010, it’s “Word On a Wing”:

Word On a Wing.
Word On a Wing (rehearsal, 1976).
Word On a Wing (live, 1976).
Word On a Wing (live, 1999).
Word On a Wing (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).

With God he has very suspicious relations; they sometimes remind me of the relations of two bears in one den.

Maxim Gorky, on Tolstoy.

The heart and hymn of Station to Station, “Word On a Wing” is a petition to God, though as prayers go it’s more of an opening negotiation, Bowie attempting to use God as leverage in some larger scheme. Hence its warring moods, suppliant and audacious (see Bowie offering his own “word” against the received Word of Christ or the petulant tone of lines like “just because I believe don’t mean I don’t think as well”). As in his love-as-confusion “Stay,” Bowie denies himself from achieving any connection, no matter how desperately he wants it. Here, he’s playing for greater stakes.

He was only nominally Christian. When John Lennon said the Beatles had meant more to British kids than Jesus Christ did, it was the likes of Bowie he was talking about.* This didn’t mean Bowie was spiritually empty: he’d spent his twenties looking for some sort of God figure that met his high standards, a path that took him from Beat existentialism to Tibetan Buddhism to whatever brew of cabbalist Gnosticism he was imbibing in 1975 (see “Station to Station”). “I had this religious fervor,” Bowie recalled in 1993. “I was just looking for some answers. Some secret. Some life force.”

“Word On a Wing,” closing the first side of Station to Station, was Bowie’s (apparently) open plea for salvation from God. He’d been tempted at the time by some sort of evangelical Protestantism, into which Bob Dylan would dive headfirst a few years later. As Bowie began writing “Word On a Wing” while filming The Man Who Fell to Earth, there was a parallel to Lennon’s “Help!”—-both songs are pleas for deliverance written while their composers were stuck on a movie set, paranoid and depressed, wondering what they’d become. In an NME interview in 1980, Bowie regarded his dalliance with Christianity as a nearly-consummated romance: “There was a point when I very nearly got suckered into that narrow sort of looking…finding the cross as the salvation of mankind.”

This sounded similar to how he’d described past relationships to journalists at the time: as an all-consuming passion that had threatened his sense of self. To bend the knee to God, to accept Jesus Christ as one’s personal savior, required humility, an acceptance that there are higher powers beyond your ken, to have faith and to not try to learn the trade secrets of the cosmos. Ultimately this wasn’t enough for Bowie; it was taking the sucker’s bet.

So like his reference to the Stations of the Cross in “Station to Station,” there was a touch of blasphemy in “Word On a Wing,” with Bowie using the imagery and musical trappings of Christian art for occult ends. Bowie crafted the song as white magic to set against the dark “Station to Station,” the two tracks spinning in parallel on an LP side, yin and yang in grooves (“Golden Years,” an ambiguous utopia, keeps them apart). The song was a “protection…something I needed to produce from within myself to safeguard myself against some of the situations that I felt were happening on the film set.”

He felt he needed protection. He’d been under siege by “dark forces” since 1974 (once throwing away a doll his cousin had given him for fear it was a Satanic totem), a predicament worsened upon moving to Los Angeles. When his wife Angela found a house on North Doheny Drive, Bowie wanted it cleansed. Following the instructions of the New York witch Walli Elmlark (which required “a few hundred dollars’ worth of books, talismans and assorted items from Hollywood’s comprehensive selection of fine occult emporia”), Angela performed an exorcism on the house, including the indoor swimming pool, a natural repository for demons.

Bowie was using Dion Fortune’s Psychic Self-Defense as a bulwark. Fortune, a British mystic of the early 20th Century, wrote that man had two Angels, a Dark Angel (which she likened to the subconscious, “a dark temptation from the depths of our lower selves…we think thoughts, or even do deeds, of which we never would have believed ourselves capable”) and a Bright Angel. The mystic’s goal is to summon the latter angel in times of “spiritual crisis, when the very self is being swept away,” she wrote. “The Higher Self comes to the rescue, ‘terrible as an army with banners’.” If successful, one has an expanded consciousness, a sense of calm, “like a ship hove-to, securely riding out the storm.”

Compare this to Bowie’s various public statements about “Word On a Wing,” that it was “something I needed to produce from within myself to safeguard myself” or “I wrote [it] when I felt very much at peace with the world….I wrote the whole thing as a hymn. What better way can a man give thanks for achieving something that he had dreamed of achieving, than doing it with a hymn?” “Word on a Wing” was his protective talisman encased in a song, much like the small crucifix he’d wear around his neck for decades.

Bowie’s brand of fascism, while it embraced irony, was basically serious; or was taken seriously by a certain hermetic compartment of his mind, wherein it dwelt. The rest of him…was deeply uneasy about it; so uneasy that he included on Station to Station a song, “Word On a Wing,” which semi-seriously kept a line open to God in case the demons evoked elsewhere in the album should get out of hand.

Ian MacDonald, “White Lines, Black Magic.”

“Word On a Wing” starts in somber opening verses, which Bowie sings in his low register (on stage in 1976, he sang-spoke the lines, sounding like Lou Reed); it’s in B major, an unusual and remote key for a rock song. He cradles the words “sweet name, you’re born once again” as if he’s consoling God. All at once comes a jolting move to D-flat major (on “Lord, I kneel and offer you…”) which continues for over a dozen unsettled bars until the song steadies in D (“Lord! Lord, my prayer flies…”). The latter section builds to the ornate rise-and-fall phrase that closes the refrain, with Bowie and Geoff MacCormack sounding like woodwinds. And then a swift fall down to earth, back to B major to start another verse. Only after further struggle is “Word On a Wing” content to stay in D major, concluding on the home chord as a celestial soprano bears the song away from its fallen creator.

This voice was generated by the Chamberlin, the precursor to the Mellotron, whose appearance here is similar to its role on the instrumentals of Bowie’s next two albums, Low and “Heroes.” In particular “Sense of Doubt” on the latter, a track that ends ambiguously, either to “resolve itself via faith into religious commitment or be left unresolved, freestanding and wordless,” as Momus once said. It would be a wary response to “Word On a Wing.”

The Chamberlin’s just one of the gorgeous touches, along with the left-mixed vibraphone that’s a counterpart to Roy Bittan’s piano or the acoustic guitar fills. The heart of the song, however, is a work for voice—see the astonishing harmonies by Bowie and MacCormack in the refrains—and piano. Whatever led to Bittan playing on Station to Station, his presence on “Word On a Wing” seems ordained. There are the child’s steps of melody Bittan plays in the intro, his steady chording in the verses, the cascading notes under the “sweet name” section, the sprightly two-note punctuation of the “word on a wing” prayer. A fellow pilgrim, Bittan’s piano has a grace that Bowie desperately craves, much as he spurns it.

Recorded October-November 1975, Cherokee Studios, LA. Performed on the 1976 “Isolar” tour, and revived in 1999.

Top: Close-up of Elizabeth Frink’s Shepherd and Sheep, 1975 (Photo: Steve Rutherford.)

* The decline in British churchgoers, notable even in the war years, was a cause of national concern and as such the subject of several books, the wittiest of which was R.C. Churchill’s The English Sunday (1954): “The Bible itself, however, has ceased in general to be read in England. What, then, do we read instead? Apart from Sunday newspapers a good many people, of course, read nothing at all on Sundays.”


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.


Poll, Day 4: Readers’ Favorite Bowiesongs, 25-1

December 18, 2015

First, an announcement.

I’m happy to say that I’ve signed with Repeater Books for Ashes to Ashes, the sequel to Rebel Rebel. Repeater was co-founded by Tariq Goddard, who signed me at Zero for the first book, and I’m very happy to be working with him and the Repeater team. (You can follow Repeater on FB or Twitter.)

The new book will be larger than Rebel Rebel, which is quite a large book. It will start with “Sister Midnight” and will end with whatever songs Bowie’s put out by summer 2017. I hope you enjoy it. And thanks so much to everyone who bought the first book, or is considering buying it.

OK, the last bunch of songs. The big megillahs. The top of the heap. Here goes, with the first book’s namesake, as it turns out:

db

25. Rebel Rebel (105 points, 93 votes, 3 #1 votes, 3 specified the U.S. single because they have good taste).

It’s a fabulous riff. Just fabulous. When I stumbled onto it, it was ‘Oh, thank you!’

Bowie.

David Bowie hopped onto the stage…Right in front of my face, this beautiful, hypnotic, strange man was singing to me…I instinctively knew that what I was experiencing was something religious.

Cherie Currie.

Heaven loves ya, no. 24!

dbboys

24. Boys Keep Swinging (108 points, 104 votes, 1 #1 vote).

I played an over-the-top bass part, in the spirit of The Man Who Sold the World.

Tony Visconti.

Bowie played it for me, and said, ‘This is written for you, in the spirit of you.’ I think he saw me as a naive person who just enjoyed life.

Adrian Belew.

dis

23. Drive-In Saturday (109 points, 101 votes, 2 #1 votes, 1 vote specified the 1999 VH1 Storytellers performance).

This takes place probably in the year 2033.

Bowie, debuting “Drive-In Saturday” on stage, 1972.

…the creaking Palais saxophones combining with post-Eno electronic whooshes, the references to Jung, Jagger and (yet to be realised!) Sylvian, Bowie’s sometimes reflective, other times barking vocals – the song is a warning about allowing the past to dominate our future so heavily if we cannot actively use it to get ourselves forward, or indeed back.

Marcello Carlin.

starman

22. Starman (113 points, 101 votes, 3 #1 votes).

After ‘Starman,’ everything changed.

Woody Woodmansey.

In 1972 I’d get girls on the bus saying to me, ‘Eh la, you got a lippy on?’ or ‘Are you a boy or a girl?’ Until [Bowie] turned up, it was a nightmare. All my mates at school would say, ‘Did you see that bloke on Top of the Pops? He’s a right faggot, him!’ And I remember thinking ‘you pillocks.’…With people like me, it helped forge an identity and a perspective on things, helped us to walk in a different way, metaphorically…

Ian McCulloch, in David Buckley’s Strange Fascination.

dbb

21. Lady Grinning Soul (115 points, 111 votes, 1 #1 vote.)

How can life become her point of view?

We reach the heights of the top 20, starting with an encounter on the stair:

lulu

20. The Man Who Sold the World (120 points, 116 votes, 1 #1 vote, 1 vote specifying the 1990s remake).

This is a David Boowie song.

Kurt Cobain.

I guess I wrote it because there was a part of myself that I was looking for.

Bowie, 1997.

Top of the pops TIE for 19-18, though if “Shane75″‘s ballot had come through (see comments yesterday), he’d have given the vote to push “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide” one step ahead of..

david-bowie-mugshot-rochester-ny-01

Stay (123 points, 111 votes, 3 #1 votes).

It started with a groove, and when I came up with the guitar bit at the front I could tell it would be a monster song. The funny thing about it is, I came up with that lick because we were messing around with an older song called ‘John, I’m Only Dancing.’

Earl Slick.

hold on a sec, while time takes a cigarette:

david-bowie-ziggy-stardust-makeup

Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide (123 points, 107 votes, 4 #1 votes, 1 specifying live 1973 versions)

It looked good when he did that whole sort of Messiah thing.

Angela Bowie.

A declaration of the end of the effect of being young.

Bowie.

dbjapan

17. It’s No Game (Pts. 1 and/or 2) (127 points, 119 votes, 2 #1 votes, 9 specified “Pt. 2,” 20 specified “Pt. 1”)

I wanted to break down a particular type of sexist attitude about women. I thought the [idea of] the “Japanese girl” typifies it, where everyone pictures them as a geisha girl, very sweet, demure and non-thinking, when in fact that’s the absolute opposite of what women are like. They think an awful lot!, with quite as much strength as any man. I wanted to caricature that attitude by having a very forceful Japanese voice on it. So I had [Hirota] come out with a very samurai kind of thing.

Bowie, 1980.

Well, this one had better have been on the list, seeing as how it named the blog. If I’d voted, this would’ve been my #1.

dbqueen

16. Queen Bitch (130 points, 122 votes, 2 #1 votes, 1 specifying the “Bowie at the Beeb” performance).

There’s blood and glitter in this song: it’s as good as anything Bowie ever made.

Rebel Rebel.

and to start the top 15, a leap from the 11th floor of some cheap NYC hotel up to the exosphere:

garson

15. Aladdin Sane ( 138 points, 122 votes, 4 #1 votes).

The ‘Aladdin Sane’ solo actually shocked me when I heard it again and I realized… that it was pretty good.

Mike Garson, ca. 2005. (above: transcription of 2:20-2:29 of “Aladdin Sane”).

Bowie has created entire universes in my mind with his words. It’s just that, on one level (to the grammar Nazi English teacher in me, at least), they’re eccentric doggerel: “Passionate bright young things / Takes him away to war (don’t fake it) / Saddening glissando strings / Uh-uh-uh-uh-uh-uh (you’ll make it)”. The verbs and the nouns don’t even agree! And how could you fake being taken away to war? Where’s the orchestra? It makes no sense!

“They’re atmospheric,” Bowie once said of his lyrics. But actually, what I’ve underestimated is that the vagueness is tactical. Bowie has also said that he’d be delighted if his work allowed people to find different characters within themselves. In order to do that, you don’t overdetermine things. There’s a kind of negative capability in not being too intentional, too specific, too narrative. This is artistry on a higher level.

Momus.

THE LAST TIE: 14-13, TWO TALES OF ISOLATION

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Space Oddity (140 points, 136 votes, 1 #1 vote, 2 votes specified the 1979 remake, 2 the Italian version)

It’s not a David Bowie song, it’s “Ernie the Milkman.”

Tony Visconti, recalling his reaction to it in 1969.

This is the great control of Major Tom, so great, that in fact, I don’t know anything.

rough translation of Seu Jorge’s Portuguese lyric in The Life Aquatic.

“And there’s nothing I can do”—this is repeated. Initially, this is just an observation and Ground Control, at this point, is still in control. The repetition comes at a stage when Ground Control is just as helpless as Major Tom.

Nelson Thornes Framework English 2 textbook.

and buckle up, because he’s:

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Always Crashing In the Same Car (140 points, 128 votes, 3 #1 votes).

So that initial period in Berlin produced Low, which is ‘isn’t it great to be on your own, let’s just pull down the blinds and fuck ’em all.’ The first side of Low was all about me: “Always Crashing In The Same Car” and all that self-pitying crap,

Bowie, 1977.

Roaring out of Berlin and into Philly…

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12. Young Americans (141 points, 133 votes, 2 #1 votes).

I peered and peered, trying to catch the ultimate vibe…Johnny Ray. Johnny Ray on cocaine singing about 1984… Don’t be fooled: Bowie is as cold as ever, and if you get off on his particular brand of lunar antibody you may well be disappointed in his latest incarnation, because he’s doubling back on himself.

Lester Bangs, 1974.

We come now to a fine example of how the “#1 vote bonus” worked out. The following song would’ve been nowhere near the Top 10 but for the fact that 12 people chose it as their number one. Borne aloft on pure love, this was.

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11. Teenage Wildlife (149 points, 101 votes, 12 #1 votes).

The lead singer, banging around in a lurex mini-dress, was drawing entirely from a vocabulary invented by Bowie. And people stood and took it.

Jon Savage, 1980.

Ironically, the lyric is something about taking a short view of life, not looking too far ahead and not predicting the oncoming hard knocks. The lyric might have been a note to a younger brother or my own adolescent self.

Bowie, 2008.

and here we go, at the height of heights. Your Top 10 (don’t blame me!)

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10. Bewlay Brothers (150 points, 118 votes, 8 #1 votes, 1 specified the alternate mix).

I was never quite sure what real position Terry [Burns] had in my life, whether Terry was a real person or whether I was actually referring to another part of me.

Bowie, 2000.

This wasn’t just a song about brotherhood so I didn’t want to misrepresent it by using my true name. Having said that, I wouldn’t know how to interpret the lyric of this song other than suggesting that there are layers of ghosts within it. It’s a palimpsest, then.

Bowie, 2008.

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9. Five Years (155 points, 147 votes, 2 #1 votes).

The cycle of the Earth (indeed, of the universe, if the truth had been known) was nearing its end and the human race had at last ceased to take itself seriously.

Michael Moorcock, 1972.

Maybe the bleak future Bowie likes to scare his fans with is a metaphor for his own present.

Robert Christgau.

but cheer up! if we’ve only got five years left, at least they’ll be:

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8. Golden Years (169 points, 149 votes, 5 #1 votes).

David goes to the piano and plays, ‘they say the neon lights are bright, on Broadway…come de dum ma baby.’ That’s the kind of vibe he wanted…I play the opening guitar riff and he says, ‘Yeah yeah yeah, like that, do that, do that.'”

Carlos Alomar.

When we came to recording the backing vocals [for “Golden Years”], David lost his voice halfway through. That meant I had to sing the series of impossibly high notes before the chorus, which were difficult enough for David but were absolute murder for me.

Geoff MacCormack.

One last burst of glam majesty:

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7. Moonage Daydream (173 points, 153 votes, 5 #1 votes, 1 specified the 1973 concert film version).

BAMMMMM-BLAMMMMMMMMM!!!
I’m an ALLIGATOR!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
BAMMMMMMMMMM-BLAMMMMMMMMMMMMMMM!!!
I’m a MAMMAPAPA coming FOR YOU!!!

Every night you knew that “Moonage Daydream” was going to be the one that really lifted them. Then we’d go and follow on from there to the end.

Trevor Bolder.

Now, the big gap. During the vote tabulation, the remaining songs quickly segregated themselves from the rest of the rabble. But the next song always kept to itself, never threatening the top 5, yet never in danger of being overtaken by any other song. A perfectly isolated entity, and so fitting for the song…

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6. Sound and Vision (244 points, 184 votes, 15 #1 votes).

“Low” was a reaction to having gone through that peculiar… that dull greenie-grey limelight of America and its repercussions; pulling myself out of it and getting to Europe and saying, For God’s sake re-evaluate why you wanted to get into this in the first place? Did you really do it just to clown around in LA? Retire. What you need is to look at yourself a bit more accurately.

Bowie, 1977.

Bowie adopts a distanced, contemplative attitude. He studies his own depression. Typically, rock music is presented by the frontman — virile, confident, strident, desirable — as Bowie himself was in 1973. In 1977, we find him frail, reticent and seemingly doubting his very self. Not nightclubbing. He is the anti-rockstar, alone in his room, thinking:

Blue, blue, electric blue.
That’s the color of my room, where I will live.

Lloyd Cole.

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5. Life on Mars? (312 points, 228 votes, 21 #1 votes, 2 specifying 2000s-era live versions).

“Life on Mars?” remains the decadent aesthete’s first and last question—his whole world’s proof there’s none here.

Greil Marcus.

This song was so easy. Being young was easy. A really beautiful day in the park, sitting on the steps of the bandstand. ‘Sailors bap-bap-bap-bap-baaa-bap.’ An anomic (not a ‘gnomic’) heroine. Middle-class ecstasy. I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn’t get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road.

Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise lounge; a bargain-price art nouveau screen (‘William Morris,’ so I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon. Nice.

Bowie, 2008.

Next, did being a suite help inflate its vote total? Probably, but one can’t imagine it without all of its constituent parts..

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4. Sweet Thing-Candidate-Sweet Thing (Reprise) (323 points, 215 votes, 27 #1 votes, 1 specifying the live 1974 version).

Sounding like a B-movie Scott Walker, Anthony Newley and Mae West, Bowie tour-guides the brothel district of his Armageddon city…Mike Garson’s florid piano qualifies it as one of the few legitimate successors to Charles Mingus’ The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.

Scott Miller.

Pass by in the night, and strain imagination to picture the weltering mass of human weariness, of bestiality, of unmerited dolour, of hopeless hope, of crushed surrender, tumbled together within those forbidding walls.

George Gissing, The Nether World.

and now….Each of these final songs at some point in the tabulations were leading the pack. Only in the last 50 to 75 votes did a winner clearly emerge. But it was a long, hard battle.

Presenting, your bronze medalist:

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3. Ashes to Ashes (358 points, 238 votes, 30 #1 votes).

It was me eradicating the feelings within myself that I was uncomfortable with…You have to accommodate your pasts within your persona. You have to understand why you went through them. That’s the major thing. You cannot just ignore them or put them out of your mind or pretend they didn’t happen or just say “Oh I was different then.”

Bowie, 1990.

So Major Tom thought he was starring in an Arthur C. Clarke story and found himself in a Philip K. Dick one by mistake, and the result is oddly magnificent.

Tom Ewing.

Bowie may still release more songs. But “Ashes to Ashes” is his last song. It’s the final chapter that came midway through the book. Bowie sings himself offstage with a children’s rhyme; eternally falling, eternally young.

and your runner up…

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2. Station to Station (364 points, 236 votes, 32 #1 votes, 1 for the Stage version).

Uprooted from his native context in the cultural artifice of Europe, isolated in a largely unironic and cultureless alien land, Bowie was forced back on himself, a self he didn’t much like.

Ian MacDonald.

Hermes teaches that the seven spheres of the stars enclose the soul of man like a prison…But man is a brother to those strong daemons who rule the spheres; he is a power like them, though he has forgotten this…For if the sun is at the center and not the earth, then there are no crystal spheres to hold us in; we have only and always fooled ourselves, we men, kept ourselves within the spheres which our own flawed and insufficient senses perceived, but which were never there at all.

John Crowley, The Solitudes.

This is from back in the Seventies. Well, my Seventies, they weren’t necessarily your Seventies.

David Bowie, introducing “Station to Station,” Atlantic City, 2004.

So you know what’s left. Too obvious? Too popular? Too epic to be denied? Well this is David Bowie’s finest song, if just for one day…

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1.“Heroes” (385 points, 237 votes, 37 #1 votes (the most in the poll), 5 specifying “Helden,” one noting it was for the LP cut, not the single)

For whatever reason, for whatever confluence of circumstances, Tony, Brian and I created a powerful, anguished, sometimes euphoric language of sounds. In some ways, sadly, they really captured, unlike anything else in that time, a sense of yearning for a future that we all knew would never come to pass.

Bowie, 1999.

And that’s it.

Honor roll: Songs that got #1 votes but not enough points to make the Top 100.

Right (29 points); Letter to Hermione (28 points); Untitled No. 1 (28 points); What In the World (24 points); 5:15 The Angels Have Gone (22 points); Time Will Crawl (22 points); Memory of a Free Festival (21 points); Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (20 points); Art Decade (18 points); A Small Plot of Land (18 points); We Prick You (17 points); It’s Gonna Be Me (15 points); Repetition (14 points); See Emily Play (11 points); Glass Spider (8 points); Ian Fish, U.K. Heir (8 points); Tonight (7 points). And When the Boys Come Marching Home, which got only 2 votes, but one was a #1 (6 points).

Thanks to everyone for participating. Album poll results at some point before Xmas.

Top 100 Songs Spotify link.

Complete list of votes.


The Stars (Are Out Tonight)

July 9, 2015

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The Stars (Are Out Tonight).
The Stars (Are Out Tonight) (video).

At first, it sounds like a comeback single from some lost 1987. Mike Campbell-esque lead guitar; a Traveling Wilburys acoustic shuffle. The huh-huh-HUH-HUH vocal tag goes further back—an Elvis loop or maybe a hook filched from the grotesque UK #1 “Cinderella Rockafella.”

But in 2013 “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” stiffed: peaking at 102 on the UK singles chart, 21 in Billboard‘s US Adult Alternative Songs and in the low 80s in the Irish and Dutch charts. Some of it was simply timing—“Stars” came out seven weeks after “Where Are We Now?,” which had soaked up the “Bowie’s back” hype. Floria Sigismondi’s video for “Stars” (see below) earned a few “think” pieces but evidently didn’t move sales that much.

Had “Stars” come first (Tony Visconti thought it a contender for debut single), would it have made a stronger mark? Most likely, but there’s something off about the track, despite it sounding like one would expect Bowie to sound in 2013. Familiar enough in voice; a lyric with “stars” in the title; the guitars genteelly distorted: enough to stand out in the mix but not causing trouble.

It’s oddly fashioned, for one thing, being hung up on refrains and verses that blur into each other, sung over endless shifts between F# minor and D major chords (hinting at an A major key that never establishes itself). So when a “bridge” section finally appears at 1:30, triggered by a fresh chord change at last (an E major on “their jealousy’s spilling down”), it hits far more like a refrain. Some other diverting moves follow: a “Spanish”-style guitar break after the third verse; the bridge repeated and used to carry the song out.

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What I noticed is that he had a lot of vocal changes but the chords stayed the same for a long time,” Gerry Leonard recalled in 2013. “I thought, if we’re going to be playing this for a long time, it might be good to have development in it…have two or three different parts I could overlay over the same chords…hopefully find a way to be part of the dynamic of the song, kind of sculpt it a little bit.” So for his lead guitar lines, Leonard played with and against the underlying F-sharp minor chords, often sounding high E notes (and so extending the chord to an F#m7),or sounding an open string for tonal contrasts. David Torn added some radio squiggles for lead figures, winking in at the ends of verses.

The track’s compressed mix converts Steve Elson’s baritone saxophone and contrabass clarinet into a secondary bassline, if one played through a blown amp. Lines by a quartet of New York string players (Antoine Silverman, Maxim Moston, Hiroko Taguchi and cellist Anja Wood) sound like Mellotron figures, while backing vocals by Gail Ann Dorsey and Janice Pendarvis are blurred garnishes (by contrast, a struck bell in the guitar break shines out in the mix). The four-note descending hook in the bridges is likely Tony Visconti’s recorder but it could as well be played on a Korg Trinity. Everyone is acting in a costume they didn’t choose.

Bowie’s phrasing mainly keeps to a narrow range of notes, biting on syllables for his consonant rhymes (“stars are never far away,” “Brigitte and Jack” “stars must stick,” “behind their tinted,” “toss and turn at night”). He sounds theatrically aggrieved, like a prosecutor opening a case; on occasion he stumbles (deliberately) through a line—take the odd timing on “we will never be rid of these stars” at 3:08 or the loping way he first sings the full title line.

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One word Bowie used to describe The Next Day to the novelist Rick Moody was “pantheon” (other applicable words: “vampyric” and “succubus, “mystification” and “domination”). As it happened, in the following summer, another pantheon arrived. (Likely heralded in Pantheon Weekly, the tabloid that Bowie picks up in the song’s video).

Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + the Divine has a simple premise: every 90 years or so, a pantheon of a dozen gods appear on the earth. They captivate, have heaps of sex, are worshiped and die, all within the space of two years. These recurrences are meant to jump-start human creativity (it’s implied that Byron, Keats and the Shelleys were in a Regency-era pantheon).

The gods assume the form of whatever will garner the most worshipers in a particular era. So poets in 1820 and pop stars in 2013: Baal (an amalgam mostly of Kanye West and Jay-Z), Inanna (Prince), Amaterasu (Florence Welch with some Kate Bush), Minerva (some Grimes, some Gerard Way), Sakhmet (Rihanna), Woden (Daft Punk outfit, Rivers Cuomo personality) and so on. The morning star of the series is Lucifer, the Thin White Duke reborn in the body of a 20-year-old suburban woman (with a hint of “Sweet Dreams“-era Annie Lennox).

There’s a sense in Wic + Div that something’s going wrong in this recurrence. (Vague spoilers ahead.) Some gods are killed (apparently) ahead of their time, some fall into a sort of civil war and one of them wonders if this could be the last recurrence, that the human race may have no use for gods anymore. It’s the premise of modern celebrity made gorgeous metaphor: these once-anonymous people are no longer themselves, but become avatars of fame, to be loved, feared, shot at, jailed and hunted down. It’s Amy Winehouse, who starved and drank herself into the cartoon image of her music, and whose last concert before her death of alcohol poisoning found her stumbling on stage, the crowd screaming “sing!” at her. Though theatrically dead, Winehouse is still working, having joined the beautiful corpse company of Marilyn, Cobain, Morrison and Hendrix, her face on T-shirts and dorm room posters, worshiped on countless memorial Tumblrs.

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There are echoes in Bowie’s lyric, in which “stars” are figures of mystery and pity, sleepless desperate gods. (He sings a line of tabloid shorthand—Brigitte and Brad are easily enough identified, but Jack and Kate* are generic starnames, fit for 1920 or 2056.) Parasitic deities who need worshipers a bit too much, “they watch us from behind their shades” (a triple play on their sunglasses, the blinds of their mansions and their ghosts).

Once it had seemed easier. Bowie liked Andy Warhol’s concept of a “superstar” as being someone who’d convinced enough other people that they were a star. It was how he and his manager sold the American press in 1972 that an oddball who’d barely hit in his home country was somehow a rock celebrity equal to Jagger or Lennon. The premise eventually wore Bowie down but at least it was open to anyone with the gumption to go for it.

But in “Stars,” there’s a sense that stardom has become yet another type of 21st Century spec work, being on the clock whenever an employer needs you. It’s a job in which even the dead stars still have to put in their hours. Consumed by their workloads, the stars are left “sexless and unaroused” like porn actors off camera; they infest our dreams but envy our sleep.

It’s a stardom suited for a world in which the concept of “youth” seems to be eroding. A piece Tom Ewing wrote this week, inspired by the latest UK budget announcements, broke it down: more and more, the young are condemned to barely-veiled conscription. Take on massive debt to get an education, or live off your parents and be accused of being a parasite, or work without labor protections and even for free, to get all-important “exposure.” “The breaking of youth independence and autonomy, the formalisation of young adulthood for the working and lower-middle classes as a time of indenture or debt feels like turning social trends into social engineering, a return to a long-ago conception of Youth that damn well better know its place.”

This feeling is found in Wic + Div as well—the sense that the gods are being exhausted in this recurrence, that their hustle is becoming desperate, that their employer isn’t happy with their productivity. And that their bright, chaotic lives have become inconsequential in the world. They still have their worshipers and altars made to them, but they’re mostly projecting outward, getting little back from the crowd.

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Sigismondi’s video for “Stars” played another variation. Apparently inspired by Sophie Miller’s video for the Eurythmics’ “Beethoven,” it dresses Bowie and Tilda Swinton as an older, well-off suburban couple who are stalked, and eventually consumed, by their vampyric counterparts: a beautiful young celebrity couple.

There are mirrors within mirrors, like the use of Swinton, Bowie’s unearthlier counterpart for decades, and the Norwegian model Iselin Steiro, who’d dressed up as some classic Bowie characters for a spread in Paris Vogue in 2010. There’s the reference to Bowie’s work in The Hunger (the vampire couple play off Bowie and Catherine Deneuve’s nightclub-foraging vampires) and of course, on his characterization in the press as a stylistic vampire. It’s also Bowie having fun with the horrific idea that David Bowie Is Old, playing a cranky pensioner enraged by his next door neighbor singing “Jean Genie” at all hours.

You’d expect the video to mock the idea of settled domesticity, that Bowie’s line “we have a nice life” is meant as a joke. But it turns out to be quite true. The star couple simply wants to escape their circuit of limousines and paparazzi spreads and are happy to be found sitting on a sofa, watching other stars work on TV.

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Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 May-ca. 15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (vocals, overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop, Human Worldwide, NYC. Released as a digital single on 26 February 2013 (UK #102).

Top: Gillen and McKelvie, The Wicked + the Divine (all panels from the first five issues, collected in The Faust Act); Bowie with Iselin Steiro, 2013; Bowie, Andreja Pejić, Saskia de Brauw and Swinton.

*wait, was Bowie a Lost fan? (An earlier draft of the lyric shows that Ms. Johansson was originally in the pantheon, as was “Bob”.)


Pablo Picasso

November 12, 2014

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Pablo Picasso (The Modern Lovers, 1972).
Pablo Picasso (The Modern Lovers, live, ca. 1971).
Pablo Picasso (John Cale, 1975).
Pablo Picasso (Cale, live, 1976).
Pablo Picasso (Talking Heads, live, 1976).
Pablo Picasso (Simple Minds, live, 1980).
Pablo Picasso (Burning Sensations, 1984).
Pablo Picasso (Cale, Rockpalast, 1984).
Pablo Picasso (Iggy Pop, broadcast, 1994).

Pablo Picasso (Television Personalities, ca. 1995).
Pablo Picasso (Bowie, 2003).
Pablo Picasso (Bowie, Riverside Studios performance, 2003).
Pablo Picasso (Bowie, live, 2003).
Pablo Picasso (Bowie, live, 2004).
Pablo Picasso (Jonathan Richman, live, 2007).

BGN: Who do you get your direction from in life and music? Does your song “Pablo Picasso” give us an idea? Do you love his paintings so much….(Jonathan starts shaking his head)…no, you don’t love his paintings so much. He was just not an asshole?

Jonathan Richman: 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.

Boston Groupie News, 1980.

Jonathan Richman was born in Natick, a suburb west of Boston, in 1951. Like Lewis Reed of Freeport, Long Island (born a decade earlier), Richman was a suburban Jew estranged from his parents who used rock ‘n’ roll music as a passkey. Richman’s catalyst was Reed’s band the Velvet Underground, whom Richman saw whenever they played Boston. By 1971 Richman had formed his own band, the Modern Lovers; a year later, they were recording demos with John Cale.

Like Ray Davies, a spiritual counterpart across the Atlantic, Richman wrote about the straights of the Sixties, those getting left behind, the suburbanites who read about the counterculture in newsweeklies. Richman’s masterpiece “Roadrunner” isn’t celebrating the freedom of the open road, as a drive around Natick or on the name-checked Route 128 (a traffic-calcified beltway that encircles Boston—its early Seventies incarnation aptly described by Joshua Clover as “a scungy corridor of doughnut shops and furniture stores”) will demonstrate. “Roadrunner” is about finding traces of the sublime in suburbia, taking refuge in your car when you drive through it: Stop ‘n’ Shop supermarkets, AM radio, McDonald’s, decaying tire outlets and car dealerships (“the spirit of 1956”). Richman sang about the dead Fifties, the dignity of old people, the secretaries and functionaries of Boston’s charmless Government Center. Hippies, when they showed up, were wastrels and creeps.

Yet Richman didn’t celebrate this prosperous middlebrow America (also the world of They Might Be Giants—Johns Linnell and Flansburgh were growing up in nearby Lincoln) as much he saw the beauty in its oddness, its sobriety, and saw how he stood apart from it. There’s darkness in his early songs. Richman’s girls get institutionalized (“She Cracked,” “Hospital“) and his first-person characters aren’t as guileless and sweet as they say they are. Instead they often come off as early-edition “nice guys,” putting girls on pedestals and growing resentful they aren’t appreciated for their efforts. “Hippie Johnny,” Richman’s rival on “I’m Straight,” sounds more fun than clingy straight-edge Jojo does, to be honest.

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“Pablo Picasso,” written around 1970, was one of the Cale demos later released on the 1976 Modern Lovers (a time-bomb of a record—while the band had broken up years before its issue, and Richman had moved to a softer style by ’76, the likes of “Roadrunner” and “Picasso” suddenly appeared for the fledgling punks to take up). As Richman said, he didn’t know anything about Picasso except what any suburban kid could’ve gleaned at the time. This was the Picasso of Life magazine profiles: an intense, bald, short man who lived with a string of impossibly beautiful women in canvas-strewn ateliers. He seemed older than America: he’d known Braque, James Joyce, Hemingway, probably King Henry VIII. He was often photographed shirtless, thrusting his chest out, striking poses like a boxer. He made painting seem like a war he’d won in single combat. A caricature of masculinity, king gorilla of the art world.

The song came from a trip to New York that Richman made right after graduating high school. Hoping to find a place in NYC bohemia, he instead was mainly left on his own. He found his idol Lou Reed distant and soon gone (Reed left the VU to go home to Long Island, working for his dad for a while). Richman hung around Warhol’s Factory but was merely tolerated. After a month, Richman went to Israel, where he only found a more intense degree of loneliness. Standing out in the desert, he realized “he had to start a band,” his friend (and bandmate) John Felice recalled. “He wanted people around him.”

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They were like the Velvet Underground, except with whimsy.

Bowie on the Modern Lovers.

When I started out, I was kind of lonely…when I had more success with girls, I had less need to be hostile, so the volume came down, and I needed happier songs with more melody.

Jonathan Richman, to Julia Sweeney, SPIN, February 1993.

“Pablo Picasso” was funny (Picasso as king greaser on the block, scoping out women while driving a Cadillac), envious, a piece of dating advice (be confident, don’t be a schmuck, get out of your head), prophetic—it’s a song that barely seems to exist as one (just jamming on one easy-to-play chord), a joke that goes on forever.

It was Richman’s low-rent take on a VU track like “Sister Ray”: a clattering vamp on E minor. On the demo, Cale establishes the drone on piano, offering a few variations as the song goes on; the drums (David Robinson) keep to one chugging pattern (Richman wanted the feel of a New York subway train), Jerry Harrison’s bassline is mainly one string bothered for four minutes; the guitar solos (Richman and Ernie Brooks) are screaming, whining jitters along the Em scale. “The original is a little dirgelike,” Bowie told Interview in 2003. “It doesn’t move much, which gives it a power, but it gives it the power of another era.”

In its various covers over the years, you can hear others trying to channel and variate its power. Cale* (officially the song’s debut performer, as his cover on Helen of Troy came out half a year before Modern Lovers) hardened the drone with a whinnying Chris Spedding guitar riff and shook up the percussion line—some tom fills, some little jumpy start-stops on guitar and bass (playing “Picasso” live, Cale kept things simpler, hanging the song back on a hammered Em chord). Coke-fueled and frustrated, Cale howled out the lyric: “never GOT called an ARSEHOLE—TOO BAD!!!…NOT LIKE YEEEW!!” The LA band Burning Sensations, for the soundtrack of Alex Cox’s Repo Man, changed the bassline, throwing in a bit of the “Peter Gunn Theme.” Television Personalities’ Daniel Treacy, centering “Picasso” on haunted-house piano and filling the mix with sirens, phone rings and wails, made it obsessive.

Bowie wanted “a more contemporary feel,” so he changed the lyric (no big deal: everyone from Iggy Pop to Richman himself already had done so) and added some chords. While Bowie’s “Picasso” still keeps for long stretches on a single chord (E-flat), Bowie threw in a new sequence (Bb-C#-G#-Bb-G#-F#) for a “refrain” (“swinging on the back porch, jumping off a big log…”) that’s has a touch of Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” And he sang Richman’s verses over a three-chord shift: (F#)”girls could not resist his stare/(G#)Pablo Picasso never got called an asshole/(Eb) Not in New York!”

For an intro, Gerry Leonard added an out-of-phase, panned “Spanish” lead guitar,** which later gets a solo with glum backing by Bowie’s foghorn of a baritone saxophone. There’s a chirpy hook on Yamaha Digital piano that sounds like it was incidental music for a Dell desktop, and some scraping rhythm guitar dubs mixed right (possibly Bowie’s refurbished Supro). Sterling Campbell’s drum tracks were among those Bowie had remixed at Allaire Studios to get a “bigger,” reverb-laden sound.

Bowie took “Picasso” at a brisk tempo (Cale had always wanted Richman to play the song faster) and sang it like a carnival barker with long, loopy phrases—he seems to be always trying to get one step ahead of the song. He said it was meant to be Reality‘s equivalent to his cover of the Pixies’ “Cactus” on Heathen, but his fizzy “Picasso” was more like the latter album’s goofy take on “I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship.” Filming a concert in Rotterdam in 2003, a fan kept panning into the audience during this song—you can see various people singing “never got called an ASSHOLE!” at the top of their lungs. “Pablo Picasso” was always an anthem in spirit. Bowie just gave it some amplification, some bits of sweetening, kicked it out into the world again.

It’s a fitting bookend to Bowie’s other painter song, “Andy Warhol.” The latter is Bowie peering into a man who isn’t there, the song of a chancer looking to pick up a few tricks. “Pablo Picasso” is a happy cartoon, a bit of advice from a man who knows. After all, you could replace “Pablo Picasso” with “David Bowie” in the lyric and it would work nearly as well. Good luck coming up with a better rhyme, though.

pablo

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

Sources: Steven Lee Beeber’s The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGB’s: A Secret History of Jewish Punk is good for Richman backstory; Joshua Clover’s “Terrorflu” (collected in Best Music Writing 2009) has a great one-page encapsulation on Richman’s “Roadrunner.” Any Richman interview that you come across is charming and funny.

* Cale was the band’s evangelist, distributing cassettes of the demo sessions to journalists and musicians in the mid-Seventies; it’s possible Bowie first heard the Modern Lovers this way.

** As you’ll see in the last clip, Richman also played cod-Spanish acoustic guitar solos when performing “Picasso” live in the 2000s.

Top: Tony Soprano, never called an asshole (well, sometimes). From Sopranos Season 4: “Mergers and Acquisitions,” first aired 3 November 2002; virile Pablo; Danny Fields, “Modern Lovers on the beach” ca. 1972.


Uncle Floyd→Slip Away

March 27, 2014

Unca-Floyd

Uncle Floyd.
Slip Away.
Slip Away (Jonathan Ross, 2002).
Slip Away (Live By Request, 2002).
Slip Away (live, 2002).
Slip Away (live, 2003).
Slip Away (live, with the Polyphonic Spree, 2004).

Deep in the Heart of Jersey!

Hanging out with Lester Bangs & all
Phil Spector really has it all & all
Uncle Floyd Show’s on the TV…

The Ramones, “It’s Not My Place (in the 9 to 5 World),” 1981.

The Catholic Church no longer believes in limbo, but they’re wrong: it exists, and it’s in New Jersey.

Floyd Vivino was a showbiz kid (“show people are show people, and that’s where I’m from,” he told the New York Times). Two of his brothers are in Conan O’Brien’s house band, his niece was in the original Les Miserables. Vivino tap-danced at the 1964 World’s Fair, worked as a sideshow barker, honed his comedy act at burlesque shows and amusement parks. He sang, played piano, did impressions. Like other vaudevillians, he found refuge in television.

When he was 23, he launched a kid’s show that, by the end of 1974, was on WBTB in West Orange, Channel 68 (a channel New York City aerials could pick up). An upstart UHF station like WBTB had to devote a percentage of airtime to children’s programming, so they took on The Uncle Floyd Show to fill the requirement (also, Vivino agreed to sell ads for it).

Compared to the child-psychologist-approved Sesame Street, The Uncle Floyd Show was weird, unsettling, a shaky transmission from some backwater. Uncle Floyd (all kids’ TV hosts were Uncles or Misters, Vivino figured, so why not be an Uncle) wore a loud plaid coat, bow-tie and porkpie hat; he played an upright piano and cracked off-camera to his crew and sidekicks, who laughed at odd, inappropriate moments (in part because the show didn’t rehearse, so crew members were seeing skits for the first time).

The show’s production values consisted of lighting and microphones. Vivino often used food as a prop because he could buy it cheap at the local Pathmark. His puppets included Oogie, a wooden ventriloquist’s clown that Vivino had found in a Times Square magic store, and Bones Boy, an ill-tempered skeleton whose catchphrase was “snap it, pal!” His co-stars included Looney Skip Rooney, gangster Don Goomba, the musical parodist Mugsy and Netto (a genie’s head in a box). There were celebrity parodies, from Floyd’s Julia Stepchild (who cooked corn dogs) to, in a nod to Jersey royalty, Mugsy’s Bruce Stringbean.

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Most of our characters fell into two categories, con men and idiots. And on the Uncle Floyd Show the con men were often outsmarted BY those same idiots. Floyd has often correctly explained the theme of the show as a frustrated host constantly being interrupted by an endless parade of pests.

Mugsy, 1999.

Much of Uncle Floyd‘s allure for early fans like Robin Williams and John Lennon was its shabbiness. It was children’s television done sincerely, with the right materials (puppets, singalongs)—Vivino wasn’t running some acidic spoof; he wanted to entertain kids while cracking up their parents—yet seeming to get it wrong. Although Vivino would bring on New Yorkers like the Ramones and Cyndi Lauper as guests, he was more devoted to the eccentrics and irritants that he seemed to have found on the roadside somewhere. Uncle Floyd was the only place in America that these people were allowed on television.*

Here’s an example: R. Stevie Moore playing “Sit Down” on the Uncle Floyd Show in 1980. After the performance, Uncle Floyd greets each member of the band. The guitarist blankly tells Floyd his guitar’s wrapped in newspaper from the day he was born (“well, that’s different,” Floyd says). Floyd vaguely insults the bassist, while the drummer is hostile (“can you shake my hand at least? Don’t you wanna meet me?”). Throughout Floyd is calm, unruffled, a king. This was television fulfilled: the rules of civilized society didn’t apply here. Television was a world made from collisions of random elements, held together by a man in a plaid coat.

Pee Wee’s Playhouse was a cleaned-up and vaccinated version of Uncle Floyd; The Howard Stern Show is its coarse descendent.

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I’m a man removed from this time zone. I would have liked the 1910s to the 1930s but now the only thing I like is “60 Minutes.”

Floyd Vivino, 1982.

John Lennon, who spent his last years in New York watching television, recommended Uncle Floyd to Bowie, who got hooked during his run on The Elephant Man in 1980. Iggy Pop became a fan, too. “We used to love falling around watching this guy,” Bowie said in 2002. “The show looked like it was done out of his living room in New Jersey.” (Close enough—it was filmed in an old house built on the site of a burned-down circus). Bowie, wearing an Uncle Floyd button, went to a live taping at the Bottom Line and told Vivino how much he loved his work. Vivino didn’t know who Bowie was at first and wanted him kicked out of backstage. (You can see why Bowie enjoyed the Sales brothers, whose background and attitude were the same as Vivino’s).

By 1982, Uncle Floyd was on enough radars that a syndication agreed to air it nationally in some 17 markets. NBC stations considered Uncle Floyd a good fit to follow Saturday Night Live (Vivino agreed: “It’s Saturday night, 1 AM. Half the audience is drunk and the other half is stoned.”). For Uncle Floyd, it was the big leagues (Vivino had only started getting paid, $125 a week, in 1978); the show even got an upgraded set. It had relocated to Newark, which meant the studio now had an air conditioner.

Syndication also meant Uncle Floyd was “cleaned up.” The syndicate brought in a former Sesame Street director, who was appalled by the lack of rehearsals and the anything-goes culture. Mugsy recalled having to shoot a single sketch 30 times. Then the finished shows were cut to bits by various stations, both to remove “weird” skits while also, in some cases, trying to make the show more salacious to appeal to the stoned post-1 AM college crowd.

It didn’t work. A few NBC affiliates soon revolted, one calling the show “garbage,” while Vivino got sued by Joe Franklin for defamation after doing a “Joe Frankfutter Show” skit. The syndication deal was over after a single season, despite good ratings in New York and Philadelphia and sold-out live shows.”Why then were we preparing to tape the final episode? Because that’s how the business works,” Mugsy wrote. “Besides we had gone from a small UHF station to national syndication in a profession that usually chews up and spits out people, programs and plots faster then the life expectancy of a bottle of beer at a ballpark.

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So Uncle Floyd went back to Jersey, and Oogie and Bones Boy didn’t become the next Kermit and Fozzie. For the rest of the century, Uncle Floyd would air on local channels, first on the public New Jersey Network until Vivino started making barbed political jokes about his home state (in West Orange, he “lived on top of a radon field, and as a taxpayer I have a right to laugh about it in public,” he later said), prompting complaints to NJN about the show’s alleged bias and its “lowbrow” humor. Then came the sunset years: a stint at the Cable Television Network of New Jersey, who wound the show down in 1992, and a brief millennial revival on Cablevision.

Interviewed in 2002, Floyd was stoic about his fortunes—he’d made a decent career in supporting acting roles (he’s in Good Morning Vietnam) and he’d never compromised on a show that he’d managed to keep alive for a quarter of a century. And around 2000, he’d gotten a phone call from David Bowie. “He said he was thinking of doing a song about me, and wanted to know what I felt about it.”

Let’s Dance, Bones and Oogie

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He still looks remarkably fit at 54 (“I’m just a year older than President Gore: one of us has had work done,” he winks), hardly changed in appearance from his career-defining role as Caligula in “I Clavdivs.” And his schedule’s never been busier: he’s starring in Boy Child: The Songs of Scott Walker, which opens at the Majestic on April 1, as well as promoting a new album, Toy (Nonesuch). It’s going to be his last, or so he says.

“The record industry and I have always been on rather estranged terms,” Bowie says. “I’ve put out an album every half a decade and each time I’ve come to regret it. The stage is where I like to be, or making a film [he’s rumored to be the baddie in the next James Bond film], or back at home painting. Standing in some recording studio, where it’s just you against a microphone, can feel like such a primitive art. I feel like I should be singing through a megaphone, like Rudy Vallee.” Still, the new album has personal resonance for him. “These were my first songs, back when I fancied myself a pop singer. No one heard them at the time, and with good reason! I wasn’t cut out for the ’60s.”

New York Herald Tribune, 22 March 2001.

Down in space it’s always 1982. Uncle Floyd‘s pivot year was also Bowie’s. In 1982 he recorded Let’s Dance. Like Uncle Floyd, Bowie was put on a larger stage than he’d ever played before; unlike Bones Boy and Oogie, he made the big time.

Bowie had been a proper pop star in the mid-Seventies, with gold records and Madison Square Garden shows to his credit, but he’d spent the rest of that decade trying to break himself down into a cult figure again. Let’s Dance and Glass Spider and Labyrinth and Sound + Vision put paid that conceit: Bowie had become globally syndicated. Years later, whenever he’d try to be a marginal figure once again, the clothes didn’t quite fit him.

So on Toy he dug out some of his oldest songs. These were the work of a man who never charted, whose shows had never sold out, whose name barely got into the music trades. The David Bowie of 1968, the Bowie of “Laughing Gnome” and “We Are Hungry Men,” was the Uncle Floyd of his day. The hipsters (John Peel, Penny Valentine, Pete Townshend) knew who he was but the radio wanted nothing to do with him. It was tides and cross-tides of history: what if these songs had been hits? Or what if Bowie in 1968 had given up music, had gone off into cabaret, and Toy was just an actor’s indulgence, a tribute to a lost, failed youth?

Toy‘s finest song used Uncle Floyd‘s lost chance at fame as a way to frame the album. Imagine a ghost world where Bones and Oogie star in films (promoting Uncle Floyd’s Big Adventure, Amy Adams gushes in an interview about how much she loved Bones Boy as a child. “I can’t believe we’re working together!”), a New York where Oogie is inflated to the size of a city block as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day float.

“Once a time they nearly might have been,” Bowie sings, giving a delicate weight to the last three syllables, as though if he pressed any harder, the bubble would pop. “Bones and Oogie…on a million screens.”

What Would You Do, Uncle F?

l

It began its life with a semi-out-of-tune piano and some grainy synth strings which sounded like they were pulled off of an old 78 rpm record,” Mark Plati wrote in his web journal in 2000. “Both sounds gave the effect of someone playing in a basement of some small, sad, lonely house.”

In October 2000 at Looking Glass Studios, Bowie and Plati were working on a new song. It had come together from a few pieces, its sound owed to a few new contributors. The Irish-born guitarist Gerry Leonard came in for some overdub work and Bowie bonded with him over stories about old coin-operated electric meters back in the UK. Lisa Germano was there to add some violin parts.

As with “Afraid,” another new song that Bowie composed during what was supposed to be a mixing/overdub session, he went off on his own to write some of it. Plati started working on a rough mix of the backing tracks. By the time he was done, Bowie had returned with a full lyric, cutting most of his vocal in a single take. For the chorus he roped in Corinne Schwab, Sterling Campbell, Holly Palmer, a few Looking Glass staff and Stretch Princess, a British alt-rock band recording in the adjacent studio.

For an intro, there was an opening routine with Oogie. It went on for a minute and a half, becoming increasingly unsettling; it reminded Germano of “a Mark Ryden painting…sweet and strangely disturbing.”

cyndiuf

Oogie crooks his round head. His empty eyes consider us through the camera, then he looks over at the unseen crew. Didja ever stop and think if there wasn’t an Uncle Floyd show what everyone on the show would be doing? Uncle Floyd says he does. A few laughs and hoots come at odd moments; they sound slightly menacing. Oogie plays with the idea, blows it up like a balloon. Netto wouldn’t even notice the show was off the air!…Scott would sit home all day and wait ’till silent movies came back. Then Oogie turns to Uncle Floyd, looks up at the man who lends him his voice: what would you do, Uncle F? What would you do if you didn’t exist anymore? There’s no answer. A Stylophone fades in.

The old toy instrument, a supporting actor of “Space Oddity,” retrieved from Bowie’s attic, sings in its small nasal range, with its crablike moves up and down a tone. Bowie sings the first verse over it; he’s a man singing along to a music box, as he would do, in mourning, on a Madison Square Garden stage a year later.

Mike Garson’s piano comes in on the second verse to settle the song down, establish its chords. The verses are long, meandering journeys off the ground (F major, “Once a time..”) up into the air, out into the orbit of a G major diminished (“Bones and Oogie”) and then slowly falling back to earth. Sterling Campbell’s drums and Gail Ann Dorsey show up to give the song its confines; Leonard’s guitar, whose tone has a touch of Mick Ronson in it, plays against Germano’s violin, two satellites in orbit. The last verse, with Germano as lead mourner, seems about to fade away, drift off into space. Then Campbell stops time with his hands, in a slow revolving fill across his toms.

Don’t forget to keep your head warm…twinkle twinkle Uncle Floyd. It’s a gift from one performer to another. Bowie won’t let the Uncle Floyd Show die. In this cavernous refrain, in this melody that he seems to have pulled out of the air, which he sings with a pack of friends and strangers, Bowie mourns the show and he saves it. Here, within the confines of his song, Uncle Floyd is a legend. Here there are stars named after Bones and Oogie. You can see them from the beach on Coney Island, just above the World Trade Center.

The last irony: his keepsake of a song was then lost.

Toy Slips Away

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Plati and Bowie finished mixing Toy during the 2000 election, taking breaks to see which candidate had the better claim to be president at the moment. “We figured it’d all be sorted out by the time we woke up the next morning,” Plati recalled.

The completed mix, allegedly with some Tony Visconti tinkering, was sent off to EMI. On New Year’s Day 2001, BowieNet announced Toy “was already in the can awaiting release and scheduled for March.” A month later, Toy‘s release date was pushed back to May. On 5 June, in a web-chat, Bowie said “I’m finding EMI/Virgin seems to be having a lot of scheduling conflicts this year which has put an awful lot on the back burner. Toy is finished and ready to go and I will make an announcement as soon as I get a very real date.” A 4 July Bowie journal entry mentioned now “unbelievably complicated scheduling negotiations.” The summer passed.

EMI had lost 40% of its market value in a single year, thanks to the onset of digital song swapping, the mild (by today’s standards) recession and some wildly ill-considered actions. The label had bet the bank on Mariah Carey’s Glitter, a colossal flop, and wound up paying Carey $28 million to end her contract. Executives quit and were sacked, divisions were folded, the label was a mess.

So you’re an EMI executive trying to stop the bleeding in 2001. Across your desk comes David Bowie’s new album…which is mostly self-covers of songs that no one has ever heard before and which leads off with an odd six-minute song about…puppets? At a time when EMI desperately needed another Let’s Dance or at least a Black Tie White Noise, they got the most self-indulgent album of Bowie’s career. And there are stories in the music press that Bowie’s recording with Tony Visconti again, making tracks that, for all you know, could be the second coming of Ziggy Bloody Stardust at last…

Snapshot video sequence

On 29 October 2001, Bowie announced EMI was going with an album of “new material over the Toy album. Fine by me. I’m extremely happy with the new stuff. (I love Toy as well and won’t let that material fade away),” he said on BowieNet. “I won’t let Toy slide away. I’m working on a way that you’ll be able to get the songs next year as well as the newie.”

He stripped some jewels from the corpse. He refitted “Afraid’ and “Uncle Floyd” for Heathen. “Shadow Man” and “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” and “Baby Loves That Way” were B-sides. The title track was an online-only bonus; pieces of “The London Boys” were offered on his website. “Conversation Piece” was on a Heathen bonus disc. But the rest of Toy, including “Uncle Floyd,” faded away.

Bowie’s musicians were crushed (Visconti told Dan LeRoy that Bowie would never talk about Toy, but hinted that Bowie had taken it hard). Despite all of his wranglings with his labels over the years, he’d never had an album rejected before. It was a sign that the old order was crumbling, that labels had become more unforgiving (around the same time, Reprise rejected Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot). Soon he’d leave EMI and form his own label.

By 2003, the idea of rescuing Toy had lost urgency. He’d parceled out about half of the album, which had “become a reservoir of B-sides and bonus tracks,” Bowie said. While the idea of releasing Toy still appealed to him, he was frank. “You know what? New writing takes precedence. It always does.” As Mike Garson said, “[Bowie] does know the meaning of the words ‘move on’,” he told LeRoy. “You bring up Toy a few years later and he’s like, ‘Toy what?’ It’s not even in his world.”

Slip Away

vUF01

Oh, sha-la-la-la-la, sha-la-la-la-la
Hey baby, come on let’s slip away

Lou Reed, “Street Hassle.”

It was as though Bowie had shot a second pilot episode, remaking “Uncle Floyd” a year later with Visconti.

No puppets here. No Stylophone, either, at first. “Slip Away” instead opens with artificial harmonics played on electric guitar. It’s the other half of the “Space Oddity” intro, a part originally played by Mick Wayne: the brittle movements of Major Tom out in orbit set against Ground Control’s droning bass signals.

Instead of Stylophone, a piano (probably Jordan Ruddess, possibly Bowie) is placed front and center in the first verse, while the second verse is in the grip of Tony Levin’s fretless bass and Matt Chamberlain’s drum loops, which offer solidity in exchange for Campbell’s dynamics (compare Chamberlain to Campbell on the refrain—the four rebukes of Campbell’s crash cymbal on “sailing over Coney Island,” the punishing snare fill just after it). Bowie sings cagily, more affectedly: he seems to be hedging his bets.

The biggest revision was to bring up the chorus to hit right after the second verse, and dispensing with the guitar solo. You can see why Bowie and Visconti did it—why hold back your biggest hook until four minutes into the track?—but the move ruined the glorious slow arc of “Uncle Floyd.” The operation wasn’t fatal, “Slip Away” still rang with mourning and triumph—you couldn’t do much damage to a melody that sturdy (there was a bit of “If I’m Dreaming My Life” in it toward the end). But there was a loss of nerve in the remake, or an impatience, a refusal to allow the song to build at its own speed. Something like what had happened to Uncle Floyd when the syndicators tried to improve it.

Pete Keppler, who engineered Toy, said he believed “Uncle Floyd” “was way cooler than the one that came out on Heathen. The mix that Mark did on that song was so much more haunting.” Still, “Slip Away” still had enough presence to make it an anchor-piece of Heathen, and Bowie made the song work on stage. As if reconsidering his revision on Heathen, his last live versions in 2003-2004 restored some of the “Uncle Floyd” framework, bringing back the puppet dialogue intro. On stage at Jones Beach in 2004 (one of his last concerts in the U.S.) he brought on the Polyphonic Spree for the last refrain to restore some of the Christmas party spirit of “Uncle Floyd.”

david_bowie_slip_away

On Sunday, 20 March 2011, an MP3 version of Toy (of what apparently were its rough mixes, not the final EMI mix) appeared on torrents. There are a few theories as to who leaked it and why: one logical-sounding scenario was that someone had acquired Toy through dubious means and was selling CDs of it on eBay, so someone in the Bowie inner circle dumped the album onto a torrent to essentially devalue the thief’s prize.

Toy‘s time, if it even had a time back in 2000, had long gone. It was a lost relic, one welcomed by fans although its critical reception was mixed. A few wags said that EMI had gotten it right by axing it. Toy got some press, got Bowie’s name back in the headlines after some years of silence, and wound up laying the groundwork for Bowie’s grand return in January 2013.

So “Uncle Floyd” survived after all. The New York City of which the Uncle Floyd Show was a minor flavor is long gone. Joey and Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone and Lou Reed are gone. WBTB was bought by Univision. CBGB’s, Brownies, Kim’s Video, Coliseum Books are all just lost names or misused trademarks now. Is it a tragedy? Everything fades. All that’s left of your childhood are some photos, some old toys (Stylophones, skeleton puppets) and old television signals (“just waves in space,” as per Thomas Jerome Newton (who would have enjoyed Uncle Floyd). Waves of sound and pictures that, if reconstituted, would play The Uncle Floyd Show, are out in the solar system somewhere. If some poor extraterrestrial ever picks up the signal, they can see 1982. Everything dies and everything goes away, and even Oogie will crack apart one day, but a few things live, too. Or at least television does. Uncle Floyd is dead, long live Uncle Floyd.

Recorded October-November 2000, Looking Glass Studios, NYC; (remake) ca. July-September 2001, Allaire Studios, New York. Released 11 June 2002 on Heathen. Performed 2002-2004. Uncle Floyd is still on the air on the Internet. Tune in here.

* Of course there was an Uncle Floyd equivalent everywhere in America then: some strange kid’s program or prayer service or community access talk show. Yes, New York likes to make its local amusements a national concern.

Sources: Beth Knobel’s article on Uncle Floyd just as the show entered syndication in 1982, for the Columbia Daily Spectator, was a wonderful resource. There are a number of sites run by fans and former Floyd Show alum. Mugsy’s ca. 1999, is essential, as is this one and many photographs shown here are found on Bob Leafe’s site. Unfortunately there’s almost no video footage of the Uncle Floyd Show on line.

Top: Oogie and Floyd, a life’s journey (Floyd, 2009 (Chris Marksbury); Bowie at the Uncle Floyd Show at the Bottom Line, 1981.