You and I and George (The “Jean Genie” Variations)

August 22, 2012

You and I and George (Red Kelly, with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, 1959).
You and I and George (Rowlf, 1977).
You and I and George (Bowie, live, 1990).
You and I and George (Bowie, live, 1996).

The “Sound + Vision” tour, 1990: an 108-show, seven-month venture that opened in Quebec City in early March, shuttled back and forth across the Atlantic for months (and across the Pacific to Japan for a week) and closed on a late September night in Buenos Aires. As it’s the only occasion that I’ve seen Bowie play live (see “Changes”), the tour is tainted with nostalgia for me, a nostalgia leavened by the fact that I can barely recall the show now.

It was the first time since 1968 that Bowie had toured without promoting a new album. Instead he meant to sell the past, to promote his Ryko boxed set and CD reissues, with the hook being Bowie’s public announcements that this was it: the last time he would play the hits. (It wasn’t, for the most part.)

Bowie had kicked around the idea of a greatest-hits revue for years, and had provisionally committed to such a tour even before making the first Tin Machine album in late 1988. Once he’d signed with Rykodisc in spring 1989, Bowie began planning in earnest and soon locked in Adrian Belew as his lead guitarist and arranger. The two spent months determining how to arrange the songs essentially on a budget. Bowie envisioned the tour as a minimalist response to the bloat of Glass Spider: no horn sections, no backing singers, no dancers,* only a small band. So instead Bowie and Belew “put the orchestrations into a sequencer,” Belew recalled to David Buckley. “We kept adding more and more sampling, and we kept buying more and more samplers!”

It was audacious in a way: Bowie, if he wanted, could sample a trademark hook of some past hit on stage, whether David Sanborn’s saxophone on “Young Americans” or Mary Hopkin’s vocal line on “Sound and Vision.” The tour would be a traveling museum exhibit, complete with period sound samples. He and Belew would come out on stage and unveil the old treasures, one by one, set to elaborate light shows and film clips, the latter projected upon a diaphanous screen that hung behind them.

Audiences ate it up (the opening “Space Oddity,” Bowie emerging on stage alone with an acoustic guitar, was a phenomenal moment, I can attest—you could feel the auditorium shake), but there was something of a funereal air to the shows as well. It was as if Bowie was performing a rolling public eulogy for his past, with concertgoers as happy mourners. “Sound + Vision,” the genial obverse of the Tin Machine project, had the same intention: it was a firebreak between Bowie and his past selves, his past music, so that Bowie could enter the Nineties unencumbered.

The setlist was allegedly democratic, with songs chosen by fan votes, a herald of the Pitchfork People’s List.** Bowie said he assembled the 30-song setlist from roughly equal proportions of vote-winners from the UK,*** the US and Europe (the Americans had pushed for the recent hits, the Europeans loved “Heroes,” which Bowie introduced as “a song for Europe!” onstage at Linz—he sang the chorus in German, too).

It’s evidence that democracy is at heart bland. There was nothing from the Sixties besides “Space Oddity.” Nothing from Man Who Sold the World. Only the singles from Diamond Dogs and Young Americans. Nothing from the “Berlin” trilogy except “Heroes,” “Be My Wife” and “Sound and Vision” (& the latter likely wouldn’t have made the cut but for being the tour’s theme song). Only the Top 10 hits from the Eighties, with Bowie pretending, as perhaps some of his audience did, that he’d made no music after Tonight, except for the newly-released “Pretty Pink Rose,” which was a sop to Belew.

Bowie seemed ambivalent to singing some of the hits again. He told Paul du Noyer that he had no problem revisiting some of them, like the Station to Station material, but songs like “Rebel Rebel” (“written for a particular generation“) had no relevance to him anymore and he felt odd singing them. “I find I’m throwing them away a bit. I hope it doesn’t show.” He cut “John, I’m Only Dancing,” another faded generational manifesto, from setlists by the end of the first run of British shows.

The band was Bowie on rhythm guitar and occasional saxophone, Belew on lead guitar, the ever-ready Erdal Kizilcay on bass, and, from Belew’s group, Rick Fox on synthesizers/keyboards and Michael Hodges on drums. There was a clear hierarchy—Belew and Bowie were the stars, the rest of the band was backup (literally, as the band played behind the projection screen for much of the show)—and it grated. The backstage mood could be sour at times (“[Bowie] wasn’t very happy on that tour. Something wasn’t working. It was a weird atmosphere,” Kizilcay told Marc Spitz). Fox eventually checked out. His main job was to monitor the samplers and sequencers and ensure they were in sync with the performances, so he took to eating his dinner while at the keyboard, and was once found (according to Belew) listening to the Beatles on headphones during a concert.

Kizilcay said he found the inclusion of a Labatt’s ad midway through the Canadian sets (Labatt’s was a tour sponsor) to be crass and that it spoiled the crowd’s mood. Once Bowie blew up when Kizilcay mistook a Bowie hand gesture and rushed forward on stage to start dancing, which allegedly threw Bowie off enough to make him miss a vocal cue (the best recollection of the argument has Bowie screaming backstage and hurling his puffy shirt at Kizilcay: “take it, Erdal! take it and sing in my place!”). The tour was draining, with Bowie losing his voice at times (a fan who attended the Modena show in September recalled Bowie balking at playing “Station to Station,” killing the song after a few bars, then starting “Fame” in rough voice, throwing away his guitar and groaning “fucking nightmare!” into the mike).

Even the genial Belew could be frustrated with the sound and the performances. With so much of the music programmed (“Young Americans” was built on lots of samples and backing tapes, from the saxophone to the vocals), there was little room for improvisation. “Stay,” the funk centerpiece of the 1976 and 1978 tours, sounded anemic compared to its predecessors.

Still, the “Sound + Vision” shows were generally strong, the performances tight, and the tour remains the last time that Bowie fully gave the people what they wanted. The concerts served as a collective goodbye—a singer divesting himself of his past, casting it out to a crowd each night. The crowd watched enormous video projections of the singer, while at times ignoring the man standing underneath his giant reflection. It was an extended disappearing act.

“Sound + Vision” was tightly choreographed—one critic recalled noting a roadie standing offstage whose apparent job it was to light a cigarette for Bowie at a precise moment. Only in a few places per show, most often “Jean Genie,” did Bowie apparently indulge his whims. Often playing “Genie” as an encore, Bowie and Belew would extend the song out over ten minutes and throw in covers during the middle of it. Bowie had done that with “Jean Genie” years before, stuffing it with “Love Me Do” during his last performance as Ziggy Stardust. Now he threw in a variety of old favorites—pieces of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a Gonna-Fall,” Them’s “Baby Please Don’t Go” and “Gloria” (the latter performed with Bono one night), “Maria” from West Side Story, “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Baby What Do You Want Me to Do,” “I Am a Rock,” Parliament’s “(Not Just) Knee Deep” (tragically unbootlegged), Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line.”

And on 21 May 1990, playing at the Tacoma Dome near Seattle, Bowie offered Red Kelly‘s “You and I and George.” Likely only a handful of people in the crowd knew that Bowie was paying homage to a local hero. Kelly was a Seattle shipyard welder who taught himself to play bass during World War II, assuming correctly that there was a shortage of bassists (though there’s always a shortage of bassists). He played with Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Red Norvo, Charlie Parker at Birdland (he recalled Parker hugged him one night “so it must have been okay”). Kelly had retired to Tacoma: only the year before Bowie’s performance, Kelly had run for mayor on a platform of bringing back cable cars to Tacoma and starting up riverboat gambling. He got 10% of the vote.

Kelly wrote “You and I and George” in the late Fifties, when he was playing with the Kenton Orchestra, and the song was immortalized on the 1959 concert LP Kenton at the Tropicana. There Kelly, shuffling up to the mike and speaking in a doleful voice, offered what would become the song’s founding joke: that it was written by someone else, who preferred to remain anonymous as the song was so lousy. (The joke was too good—“George” has been described as a “traditional” song in several Bowie resources.) The distinguished bluesman Rowlf, playing “George” on The Muppet Show in 1977, said that the song only sold two copies: “I bought one and George bought one. Where were you?” In Kelly’s words, “George” was the product of a hungover songwriter who’d finally realized that people didn’t care about lyrics. It was just one sad verse: a trio walks along a brook, George falls in and drowns himself, the girl/guy winds up with the singer, who’s obviously his/her second-best choice.

Bowie honored the tradition: “You boo it when you’re fed up with it!” he told the crowd (see again Rowlf: “my own mother turns down her hearing aid when she hears this song!“). But in its few public incarnations, “George” had a small mordant beauty; it’s a sap’s love song. And Bowie’s vocal that night in Tacoma, somber and even mournful, seems in part a burlesque of his performance of “The Drowned Girl.” He sang “George” once more at the Bridge Benefit Concert in 1996.

The tour ended tensely, with some police aggression affecting the final South American shows (Bowie was playing Chile when Pinochet had only just relinquished power and was still commander in chief, while Argentina had had a spell of government-toppling riots in 1989). Bowie and Belew parted ways, Bowie promising to give Belew a call soon for further work (Belew told Paul Trynka in the late 2000s that he was still waiting for the call!). A few days after the last show in Argentina, Bowie went on a “blind” date with Iman Abdulmajid, who he’d met a few times backstage during the tour. He would marry her within two years; his next solo record would be a shrine to her. But first there was the Machine to put to rest…

Bowie’s “George” was recorded 21 May 1990, Tacoma, Washington (unreleased).

* Bowie had intended to use the dance troupe La La Human Steps but as the scheduling didn’t work out, he instead used video clips of lead dancer Louise Le Cavalier.

** Only about 20 of my picks (the obvious indie ones) made the People’s 200.

*** Cue the very, very shopworn anecdote about the NME trying to rig the poll by pushing for “The Laughing Gnome.”

Top to bottom: various photos and souvenirs from the 1990 tour, with the top photo coming from the show that I attended, Hartford, 23 July 1990 (it’s by Bonnie Powell). Most are from the essential Teenage Wildlife.


Fame

November 22, 2010

Fame.
Fame (single edit).
Fame (Soul Train, 1975).
Fame (Cher, 1975).
James Brown, Hot (I Need to Be Loved Loved Loved), 1976.
Fame (live, 1976).
Fame (live, 1978).
Fame (live, 1983).
Fame (live, 1990).
Fame (live, 1997).
Fame (Howard Stern’s Birthday Bash, 1998).
Fame (Live at the BBC, 2000).
Fame (TOTP2, 2002).
Fame (Live By Request, 2002).
Fame (live, 2004).

“Fame,” one of David Bowie’s two US chart-toppers, is a freak and a fluke. It’s more in line with experimental Bowie works like Low than it is with the “soul” album to which it was appended. Its groove, so compelling that James Brown stole it, and its back story (the John Lennon connection likely spurred airplay) made it a smash, but “Fame” just as easily could’ve been consigned to Bowie’s pile of studio outtakes.

Because Bowie wasn’t sure what he had with it: a minimalist funk improvisation, a mutant hybrid of “Foot Stompin’,” the odd result of a few hours of studio jamming. He later called “Fame” his least favorite track on Young Americans, a sentiment that some of his players shared—Andy Newmark, who drummed on most of Young Americans (but not “Fame”), dismissed “Fame” as “just a vamp, a groove. It’s not the essence of what [Bowie] represents in my mind. “Young Americans” is more of the persona I associate with him.”

“Fame” is as dry as it is cynical, the opposite of what Bowie had been attempting when he started Young Americans in Philadelphia, with the dense gospel- and soul-inspired tracks cut at Sigma Sound. Now here was a track clarified to vocals, guitars, bass and drums; it was funk seemingly arrived at via a William Burroughs cut-up. Its sonic landscape, using the wide stereo separation typical of contemporary funk tracks (like Lyn Collins’ “Rock Me Again & Again & Again & Again & Again”) is broad and clear.

The track is nothing but a set of muscles and ligaments. There are no horns, no backing chorus singers (just Lennon’s squeaked-out “fame” and the varispeed vocals at the end), no keyboards save for a backwards piano track that appears in the intro and briefly shows up later. Primarily built on one chord (F7), the song’s either one long chorus or an extended, repeating verse, the only contrast being the two-bar move to B-flat: “It’s not your brain/it’s just the flame”, etc.). The rhythm, apart from two bars of 3/4 that open the track, is straight 4/4, hammered down by Emir Ksasan’s bass and Dennis Davis’ drums hitting on alternating beats.

The lyric came out of Lennon’s cynical take on the star-maker-machine process, with Bowie contributing his own paranoid thoughts on the business, particularly his gripes with his manager, Tony Defries. (Bowie, having discovered that the massive expenses incurred by Defries’ company Mainman were coming out of his own pocket, formally severed ties with Defries about ten days after recording “Fame,” kicking off a legal war.)

Two rock stars complaining about being famous are a potentially awful set of parents, but Lennon and Bowie’s lines are harsh enough, and lurid enough (“lets [a man] loose and hard to swallow”), to be compelling. There’s no self-pity in “Fame,” as there is in something like Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page,” where playing the star is a weary business, one Seger shoulders like a burden. In “Fame,” the lyric is a series of dry observations that culminate in the key line of the last verse—is it any wonder I reject you first? In the first verse, “fame” is an active force, a possession (it “makes,” “puts,” “lets”), while in the second verse, Bowie pits “what you like” against “what you get” and “what you need”—fame may satisfy the first, but it puts you on the hook for the rest. (There’s a dying Sixties echo in these lines, a play on the Stones’ you can’t always get what you want (but sometimes you get what you need) (which already suggested that sometimes you get nothing at all), or on Dylan’s line from “Memphis Blues Again”: your debutante knows what you need/but I know what you want.)

The song’s poison can be distilled down to how Bowie and Lennon sing the title word. They elongate the “ay” sound while pulling the word down (it sinks a half-step between syllables), so that it’s not an affirmation, an exclamation—it’s a hook that initially sounds like a phasing mistake. It sags, it withers, it blights the rest of the verse. Bowie spends much of each verse trying to scrabble back up to the initial high note (& only doing so on each phrase’s last syllable (for instance “take things ov-ER“)).

Conception

“Fame” was officially credited to Bowie, Lennon and Carlos Alomar, and in the 35 years since its creation, there’ve been about as many claims as to who contributed what to “Fame,” and especially who ripped off who.*

Lennon’s primary contributions seem to be a) playing an acoustic guitar only audible in the intro bars, b) supervising the backwards piano track and c) allegedly coming up with the line “fame” and sometimes singing it. Still, some writers have made Lennon (who was in the studio on a whim, having come in to hear “Across the Universe”) more of the creative mastermind. For example, here’s Philip Norman, from his 2008 Lennon biography, who claims: John attended the session at Electric Lady studio and improvised a three-note riff around the single word “fame.” Compare Lennon himself, who, interviewed soon after “Fame” was released in 1975, gave credit for the riff to Alomar: “This guitarist had a lick, so we sort of wrote this song, no big deal. Oh-boom-boom-boom. We made this lick into a song is what happened.”

Alomar recalled that “Fame” came about after Bowie finally decided that “Foot Stompin’,” which he’d been trying to cut in the studio for months, wasn’t going to work. “Foot Stompin'” “sounded like a plain, stupid, old rock & roll song,” Alomar told David Buckley in 2005. “David didn’t even like it. So what he did was to cut it up into blues changes, which is one-four-five-four, which is what “Fame” is. It cut it up so he just had drums, bass and that one guitar line.” Alomar also said Lennon, playing acoustic guitar, inadvertently inspired the lyric. Lennon “put his chin on the acoustic guitar when he played and just the breathing he did produced that funny noise. David thought he was saying “Fame”: “he’s saying Fame! I’m telling you!”

There are three primary guitar tracks on “Fame”: the Alomar “Foot Stompin'” riff that repeats through the verses (mainly confined to the left channel), Bowie’s central electric guitar, which, in Bowie’s words, “makes the long Wah and the echoed Bomp! sound,” and which serves as the track’s brass section (there’s also a “telephoning ringing” guitar fill mixed in the center), and a third electric guitar, mainly confined to the right channel, that keeps to the high end. There are secondary guitar tracks as well—Lennon’s barely-there acoustic, and what Alomar has claimed (and Bowie has disputed) as a series of guitar overdubs that Alomar did after Bowie left the studio.

Bowie added dabs of color (the backwards piano and rattlesnake percussion that drop in after the third verse) to help the track avoid monotony, and he ended “Fame” with a new varispeed vocal experiment (see “The Bewlay Brothers,”The Laughing Gnome,” “After All”). Here a repeated “fame” (Lennon and Bowie’s vocals) descends stepwise from the air to the earth over six bars. So the vocal, initially sped up to Gnome level, starts up in the stratosphere on a high E flat, falls an octave over two bars, then falls another octave in the next two (going from D to D), until finally the vocal, now at molasses speed, ends in the depths, stopping on a low D (tweaked a beat later by a Lennon “fame!” interjection). The idea’s an old Bowie trick, as the same melodic fall appears in “Gnome’s” opening bassoon line and it will soon crop up again in “Speed of Life.”

Reaction/Revision

Released in August 1975, “Fame” hit #1 in the US a month later. It was his long-desired passport. “Fame” landed him on Soul Train, where Bowie was so wrecked that he required multiple takes to lip-sync it and “Golden Years,” and an even more prestigious/egregious tribute was James Brown’s outright theft of much of the song—Alomar’s riff, the “telephone” guitar fills—for his 1976 single “Hot (I Need to Be Loved, Loved, Loved).” (Some stories have claimed Brown actually put on the Bowie record for his band, and said “play this.”) For Alomar, who had played with Brown in the late ’60s, it must have seemed a particularly strange turning of the circle. Alomar once said Bowie told him “if it charts, we’ll sue [Brown],” a spectacle avoided by “Hot”‘s weak performance (#31 R&B).

Fame 90 (remake).
Fame 90 (Arthur Baker, house mix).
Fame 90 (‘hip hop’ mix).
Fame 90 (with Queen Latifah).

Bowie had played “Fame” for most of his tours between 1976 and 1990, and, needing bait for Ryko’s CD reissue campaign, he reworked “Fame” at the end of the ’80s. While attempting to maintain the original’s minimalism, Bowie larded his new mix with gewgaws and glitter, put the rhythm on steroids, mercilessly included a vocal “stutter,” and then turned his own sins over for other parties to amplify. While “Fame” would seem to be ideal raw material for a hip-hop update, Bowie wound up with a Queen Latifah performance that achieves mediocrity in its better moments. The best of the new lot is probably the Baker house mix, which uses Bowie’s vocal as just another piece of percussion.

“Fame” was recorded ca. 12-15 January 1975. Released in August 1975 as RCA 2479 c/w “Win.” (While hitting #1 in the US, it only reached #17 in the UK. The British, in a nostalgic contrarian mood, instead sent a re-release of “Space Oddity” to the top in the same period.) “Fame 90″ came out in its various incarnations in March 1990 (a 7″ single, a 7″ picture disc and a 12” single/CD all featured different mixes), and served as the traditional crap “remake” cuckoo egg track on the hits collection ChangesBowie (there’s usually one on every greatest hits compilation, cf. the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me ’86”.)

Top: Bowie’s choreographer, Toni Basil, on the cover of the Sept. 1974 issue of After Dark, the apparent inspiration for Eric Stephen Jacobs’ Young Americans cover photograph. Bowie allegedly had wanted to commission a Norman Rockwell painting for the cover, but balked when he was told Rockwell needed at least six months to do the job.

A postscript on “Shame” and plagiarism:

Shirley & Company’s “Shame, Shame, Shame” has been called a key influence on “Fame,” and some Bowie biographers claim that “Fame” actually rips “Shame” off, e.g. Christopher Sandford: [Fame] evolved, via Carlos Alomar and a riff lifted from Shirley and Company (my emphasis) through a half-dozen makeovers and a last-minute name change from “Footstompin’.” (“Footstompin’ was another song, but never mind that.)

Sandford’s source appears to be Tony Zanetta and Henry Edwards’ bio Stardust, from 1986. In this account, Lennon “while David was out of the room” starts playing the “Shame, Shame, Shame” riff, and is soon joined by Alomar, who “picks up the riff, and the two men played together.” Bowie allegedly comes in, asks what they’re playing, is told it’s “Shame, Shame, Shame,” then leaves the room and comes back a half-hour later with the complete lyrics for “Fame.”

If true, this scenario would have the wily Alomar riffing with Lennon on a song that he’s already ripped off. Because Alomar had been playing his “Foot Stompin'” riff, the direct ancestor of the “Fame” riff, since late October ’74. The timing doesn’t really work. “Shame, Shame, Shame”‘s first reference in Billboard is the issue of 21 December ’74, where it’s reviewed as a new-release single, and “Shame” didn’t chart nationally until 18 January 1975, days after the “Fame” recording session. Sure, pro musicians often get new releases ahead of the public, and “Shame” was likely getting NYC airplay in December ’74, but, really, the 35-year-old John Lennon was that up on new disco records? And wouldn’t Alomar, instead of “picking up” the riff, maybe have said something like, “yeah, I love this song—in fact, I’ve been jamming it for months on tour already.”

My guess: “Shame, Shame, Shame” has really nothing to do with “Fame.”[CO, 2014: I was wrong: see Trynka in comments.] I expect the confusion began when people first heard “Fame” in summer ’75 (when it was released as a single) and thought it was a nick on “Shame,” a hit song from the previous winter. Now James Brown, on the other hand—the Godfather committed robbery in broad daylight, no denying it.


See Emily Play

August 10, 2010

See Emily Play (Pink Floyd, 1967).
See Emily Play (Bowie).

Syd Barrett’s masterpiece “See Emily Play” was one of the last songs he wrote for Pink Floyd. As with other psychedelic songs of the era, “See Emily Play” equated the images received by a mind under the influence of LSD with a child’s developing perception of the world, so its lyric centers on a lost girl (it’s never said she’s a child, though she’s very much a modern Alice in Wonderland) who could be having a bad trip; its chorus is a nursery rhyme, and the track is stuffed with a nursery’s worth of clatter, from music-box chimes to sped-up pianos to guitars that mimic clocks ticking.

Acid use had worsened Barrett’s fragile mental state, and he was reaching the point of no return by the time of “See Emily Play” (David Gilmour, his soon-to-be replacement, visited Abbey Road during its recording and was shocked by Barrett’s deteriorated condition). So the song’s pastoral is undermined by various ominous warnings—the image of Emily lost and crying in the woods at night, or the bluntly-stated “you’ll lose your mind and play.”

Bowie, when he covered “See Emily Play” for Pin Ups, followed this darker path, making the song a schizophrenic nightmare occasionally broken by moments of clarity and restraint. While Bowie sings the verses plainly, even languidly, the chorus is overwhelmed by a choir of ghouls (see our old friend “The Laughing Gnome” or “The Bewlay Brothers”): Bowie overdubs that were altered, via varispeed, to lurk an octave beneath his lead vocal.

Bowie’s cover is also a sonic tribute to Barrett, the one artist covered on Pin Ups who had been a direct influence on Bowie, from Barrett’s singing voice with its unaltered English accent to his fevered, shambling stage appearances (Bowie said Barrett was the first man he saw wearing make-up on stage). Mick Ronson’s guitar echoes Barrett’s own playing on early Pink Floyd tracks (take the descending, twisting lead riff of “Lucifer Sam,” which is close to surf music, or the harsh chording of “Astronomy Domine”). Mike Garson, on piano and synths, provides the color, while Trevor Bolder and Aynsley Dunbar’s backing is more solid and fluid than the original track’s.

The track ends with the taste of a sprightly arrangement for strings, suggesting either that the madness has abated for now, or that it’s become all-consuming, blotting out reality forever and leaving the singer stranded in a permanent dream (the psychotic varispeed voices bleeding into the final verse, eating away at Bowie’s lead vocal, suggest the latter). Despite its bizarre, garish trappings, “See Emily Play” is the only Bowie cover on Pin Ups bold enough to be nuanced.

Recorded July-early August 1973.

Top: Children, under stress since 1973.


End of Chapter Three (1971-1973)

July 6, 2010

In the last months of 1970 David Bowie sat alone at his piano in Haddon Hall in Bromley, day after day, writing songs. No one knew him when he went out into the street. He was composing more for others than for himself. The songs piled up around him, fictions for an inhospitable world.

By July 1973 Bowie had become a name and a face: he was as striking and as recognizable as a cereal box logo. He had sold-out shows, had five LPs in the UK Top 40 (including #1, Aladdin Sane), and even a reissued “The Laughing Gnome” would hit the Top 10.

And it was ending just (seemingly) as it was starting. The band he had casually assembled in 1970 was breaking apart. Woody Woodmansey (radicalized by his conversion to Scientology, and asking for more money) was gone, Trevor Bolder would soon follow him. Even Mick Ronson was wondering where he stood.

So five days after he announced his retirement on stage at the Hammersmith, Bowie left for France, for the Château d’Hérouville in Val-d’Oise. He was going to make a covers record.

My Top Ten of the period. A tough call:

Queen Bitch.
Life On Mars?
Suffragette City.
The Bewlay Brothers.
All the Young Dudes.

The Jean Genie.
John, I’m Only Dancing.

Sweet Head.
Panic In Detroit.
Oh! You Pretty Things.

Top: Ilsa (l) narrowly won the contest, having used the most square yardage of polyester curtain fabric to make her leisure suit. Heike (2nd from r) smiled but was consumed with silent hatred. She had thought her maxi-dress was a sure winner, and later that day she set fire to it in a trash barrel (Bundesarchiv: “Leipzig, Messe, neue Mode,” September 1972).


Starman

May 12, 2010

Starman.
Starman (Top Of the Pops, 1972).
Starman (live, 1972.)
Starman (live, 1990).
Starman (broadcast, 2000).
Starman (live, 2002).
Starman (broadcast, 2002).

“Starman” is David Bowie’s Christmas carol. It offers a promise of deliverance, that the human race has been redeemed by greater powers, with a chorus built for a crowd to sing it. It’s the song that finally broke Bowie, whose performance of it on a July 1972 Top of the Pops made him a nationwide, and soon worldwide, pop star. So while the Ziggy-era Bowie is remembered today for his outrageousness, the song that made his name is warm, reassuring and most of all familiar.

The latter’s key. For the average UK pop listener of 1972, David Bowie was still the weirdo who had had the song about Major Tom back in the ’60s, and suddenly, here he was back again with another astronaut song. It finally connected. And “Starman” seems like a revision of “Space Oddity”—“Space Oddity” had placed a frail human figure against the unfathomable expanse of space and cast him loose to drift into the unknown. It was submission to the void, the human race reaching its limits. In “Starman” the unknown is domesticated: the alien comes to visit us, in our homes, whispering through our radios, speaking softly, promising release. The stoicism of “Planet earth is blue/and there’s nothing I can do” is replaced by “he’s told us not to blow it/’cos he knows it’s all worthwhile.” The human race, or at least its children, turn out to be essential after all—the earth, once again, is the center of the universe.

Variations on this theme were common in the Seventies, from the popular Erich von Däniken theory that mysterious aliens had helped guide the progress of human civilization, to the benevolent star-children of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to even Doctor Who, where in the early ’70s the cosmos-traveling Doctor was exiled on present-day Earth and freelanced for the military.*

“Starman” is also a pop song about pop music. Bowie’s alien appears only as a voice on the radio (he’s basically a cosmic DJ), whispering secrets to a teenager listening late at night—it’s how pop music can instantly create secret societies, break up the tedium of your life, liberate you from your parents. And “Starman” the track seems fused from a pile of old records. The octave-leap opening of the chorus is a lift from “Over the Rainbow” (so much that Bowie cheekily merged the two songs during a ’72 concert at the Rainbow, linked to above), the guitar-keyboard hook linking the verse to the chorus is taken from the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” or The Five Americans’ “Western Union” (Nicholas Pegg suggests Blue Mink’s “Melting Pot”), while the long “LA-la-la-la-LA” outro is pure T. Rex, particularly “Hot Love.” It’s a greatest-hits compilation in a four-minute song.

For all its familiarity, “Starman” begins ominously enough, opening with an eleventh chord and slowly moving through eight bars in which Bowie hums along to his acoustic guitar, all ringing open strings. This intro keeps listeners on edge, getting them to wonder just where the track’s going, until a fill by Woody Woodmansey (just two toms and the snare) kicks off the verse. Bowie sings the two seven-bar verses softly, in a near-whisper in places, keeping to the middle of his range. He barbs a few vocal hooks (the four-note dips in the second and fourth bars (‘were low-oh-oh,” “di-oh-oh-oh”)), while a bar of fast acoustic strumming fills a gap.

The chorus starts with Bowie’s octave leap (F to F), much like the chorus of “Life On Mars,” but listeners were prepared for the “Mars” chorus via the build-up of its extravagant bridge. The “Starman” chorus just erupts after two bars of the “Hangin’ On” guitar-keys hook. Ronson’s solo (which repeats in the long outro) is typically melodic and crafty. I’ll let Jesse Gress, author of “10 Things You Gotta Do to Play Like Mick Ronson,” describe it: [it’s] a perfect example of how to build a strong, memorable melodic line over a simple IV-I-V-I progression (Bb-F-C-F). The idea is to target the 3 of each chord on every downbeat and connect them with adjacent F major scale tones, while “playing” the strategically placed rests and making the melody more guitar-y by adding bends and finger vibrato.

And like “Hot Love” or “Hey Jude,” the song seems unwilling to stop, its outro extended for over a minute while Ronson throws in some additional lead playing and Bowie leads a chorus in a circle.

After ‘Starman,’ everything changed.

Woody Woodmansey, 2008.

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.

“Starman” wasn’t meant for Ziggy Stardust. Bowie went into the studio in early February ’72 to cut the song as a single, but RCA’s “contemporary music” VP Dennis Katz loved “Starman” so much he mandated its inclusion on the LP (a sign that RCA’s US operations were calling the shots, as American labels always had been baffled by the UK practice of keeping singles off the album). Released in April, “Starman” had a slow journey up the charts but thanks in part to Bowie’s touring, it reached the top 10 by late June. Two television appearances by Bowie and the Spiders to support the single did the rest.

The first was Granada TV’s Lift-Off With Ayshea on 15 June, but the one everyone remembers is the Top of the Pops performance, recorded on 5 July and broadcast the following day. For a generation of British teenagers, it was nothing short of the revolution, televised. Marc Riley, later of The Fall, recalled his grandmother shouting insults at the TV while Bowie performed (“something she usually saved for Labour Party broadcasts” he told David Buckley). The 15-year-old Susan Ballion, soon to call herself Siouxsie Sioux, watched Bowie’s Top of the Pops while in the hospital recovering from colitis; the 15-year-old Gary Numan watched it, stunned, in his East London living room; in Liverpool, the 13-year old Ian McCulloch stared at the TV and “thought maybe I was Ziggy Stardust all along,” as he told Marc Spitz.

The performance isn’t just about Bowie, though he’s striking with his copper-colored mullet, his leotard and his effortless charisma (twirling his finger at the camera while singing “picked on you-ooh-ooo”, and connecting with every susceptible kid in the UK). The essential moment comes when Bowie starts to sing the first chorus and Ronson tentatively approaches the mike. Bowie notices him and sweeps his arm over Ronson’s shoulder, pulls him to the mike. It’s a sweet moment of inclusion, the alien embracing the rocker, and, by proxy, all of the nation’s misfits. “Starman” left community in its wake; its promise came true.

“Starman” was recorded on 4 February 1972 and released in April (RCA 2199) c/w “Suffragette City.” It hit #10. “Starman” wasn’t a regular feature of the Ziggy tour; Bowie stopped playing it by the end of 1972 and there are some other signs (such as its odd exclusion from the greatest hits LP ChangesOneBowie) that Bowie didn’t think much of it at the time. He wouldn’t play “Starman” live again until his greatest-hits tour of 1990, though it became a standard in Bowie’s early 2000s shows.

* An indulgent, long footnote on Bowie and Doctor Who. Bowie’s career has many parallels with the history of the UK’s finest SF show (let alone the fact that Bowie’s best chronicler, Nicholas Pegg, is a Dalek operator in his spare time). Bowie’s recording career begins soon after the start of Who in  late 1963, and the odd psychedelia of his late ’60s work is something akin to the whimsy of Patrick Troughton-era Who (cf. “The Laughing Gnome” with “The Mind Robber”). Bowie’s glam era coincides with the Pertwee years (the back cover of Ziggy Stardust even has Bowie standing in a police box!) (well, no, this is a cock-up of a statement—see comments), his most ambitious, influential work with the Tom Baker years (Low and the great Baker Season 14 are synchronous), Bowie’s MTV-era reign with Peter Davison’s. And Bowie’s fall into mediocrity is matched by Who‘s own descent into the pit (and cancellation) in the mid- to late-’80s. Oddly enough, Bowie’s current exile from performing and recording started just as Who was successfully revived in 2005.

Top: Jon Pertwee banters with Nicholas Courtney while an engrossed Katy Manning pays them no mind (Day of the Daleks, January 1972).


Oh! You Pretty Things

February 5, 2010

Oh! You Pretty Things (LP, 1971).
Oh! You Pretty Things (Peter Noone, 1971).
Oh! You Pretty Things (broadcast, 1972).
Oh! You Pretty Things (Hammersmith Odeon, 1973).


You must face the fact that yours is the last generation of homo sapiens. As to the nature of that change, we can tell you very little. All we have discovered is that it starts with a single individual—always a child—and then spreads explosively, like the formation of crystals around the first nucleus in a saturated solution. Adults will not be affected, for their minds are already set in an unalterable mould.

In a few years it will all be over, and the human race will have divided in twain. There is no way back, and no future for the world you know. All the hopes and dreams of your race are ended now. You have given birth to your successors, and it is your tragedy that you will never understand them…

Arthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End.

He stands there thinking, the kids keep coming, they keep crowding you up.

John Updike, Rabbit, Run.

“Oh! You Pretty Things” was the first composition to emerge from Bowie’s composition binge in late 1970 (Bowie’s new publisher nabbed it for Peter Noone to record as his debut single) and it signals a change in Bowie’s writing. For one thing, it’s likely the first song Bowie composed on piano rather than on guitar. Songs composed on piano are often more harmonically adventurous than guitar songs—in “Pretty Things,” some fifteen different chords appear over the course of a three-minute song (with every pitch in the D-flat scale (the home key) eventually used). John Lennon in the late ’60s started composing on piano because it led him to unexpected chord progressions, and some of Bowie’s songs from this period suggest he was following a similar design.

There’s also a greater irony and clarity in Bowie’s lyric. Sure, Bowie’s singing about the supplanting of homo sapiens by a more evolved species (you know, your basic pop lyric), territory he already covered in “The Supermen,” but where “The Supermen” is brutish and ridiculous, with its naked Titans grappling each other on some lost island, “Oh! You Pretty Things” is charming, eerie and domestic. It opens one peaceful morning in a quiet English home:

Wake up you sleepy head,
Put on your clothes, shake off your bed.
Put another log on the fire for me,
I’ve made some breakfast and coffee.

And when the cataclysm comes, the singer regards it as he would a traffic accident:

Look out my window, what do I see?
A crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me…

The lyric owes a great deal to Clarke’s Childhood’s End (Nicholas Pegg suggests another likely inspiration, Bulwer-Lytton’s The Coming Race, which Bowie namechecks). In Childhood’s End, a race of aliens called the Overlords arrive on Earth to end war, hunger and unrest. (Spoilers ahead.) But the Overlords are revealed as midwives, here to supervise the birth of the next species of humanity. It ends with the final generation of homo sapiens living out their days in empty peace while their children roam about the stars, acting in unknowable ways.

I think that we have created a child who will be so exposed to the media that he will be lost to his parents by the time he is 12.

David Bowie, new father, interview with Melody Maker, 22 January 1972.

The resonance of “Oh! You Pretty Things” comes from how it uses these Nietzschean SF trappings as a metaphor for how a generation regards its successor with longing, fear and resentment (never more so than with the so-called Greatest Generation and their children the Boomers), or, even closer to home, how a parent can regard his or her children. Once you become a parent, you lose precedence in your own life—your own needs and desires are shunted aside, and you spend years as servant and guide to your replacement, who will go on to have richer experiences and greater opportunities than you ever had (that’s if you’re lucky). More bluntly, once you reproduce, your genetic purpose is fulfilled and all that remains is age, redundancy and death.

So Bowie, who was about to become a father when he wrote this song, offered a funny, extravagant depiction of paternal anxiety, something of a kinder cousin to David Lynch’s Eraserhead (which in part was inspired by Lynch’s fears after the birth of his daughter).

There’s as much acceptance in it as there is anxiety. Just listen to the way Bowie delivers the lines “All the nightmares came today/And it looks as though they’re here to stay,” with a shrug, even sounding a bit cavalier (the only harsh note comes with the jarring line “the earth is a bitch”). Wry acceptance is all one can offer when the world is so eager to leave you behind. After all, the world into which we are born and which forms us—its people, its colors and faces, its houses, its music and smells—dies so many years before we do, leaving us to spend much of our lives in unconscious mourning for it.

“Pretty Things” isn’t mournful. It ruefully celebrates its generational turmoil, in the way of a man faintly grinning while his house is being torn down; if it’s also a coming-out song, as some have argued, it’s from the perspective of an older man watching liberated boys cavort on a street he was afraid to be seen on. It marvels at the young, beautiful and allegedly revolutionary (the way Michelangelo Antonioni made two vacant pretty kids into icons in Zabriskie Point) and takes comfort that the kids are doomed to suffer the same displacement.

We’ve Finished Our News

Hunky Dory is Bowie’s early self-compilation, a shop window for his wares to date: folk meditations (“Quicksand”), mime performances (“Eight Line Poem”), Velvets-esque rock (“Queen Bitch”), tributes to elders (“Andy Warhol,” “Song For Bob Dylan”), fractured music hall (“Fill Your Heart”), marquee pop (“Changes,” “Life on Mars”) and even an oddity epilogue, “The Bewlay Brothers,” in which Bowie brings back the Laughing Gnomes.

“Oh! You Pretty Things” would seem to fall in the music-hall category, its three verses carried entirely by Bowie’s voice and piano*, while Mick Ronson, Woody Woodmansey and Trevor Bolder are confined to support work in the choruses. The track denies the pleasures of simple pop, however—the piano sounds harsh and dry, and the song itself is constructed oddly. It has a 9-bar opening in F major that moves from 2/4 time to a single bar of 3/4 and ends with two 4/4 bars of pounded chords, and in the verses the piano accompaniment is restless and agitating, never letting the vocal rest comfortably: chords are constantly shifting (“a crack in the sky and a hand reaching down to me,” scarcely more than a bar’s length, goes from Bb7/D to Ebm to Gb/Fb to Cb/Eb), while the bass often alternates between single notes and repeated octave leaps, and even falls suddenly out in the penultimate bar of the verse. An odd 2 1/2 bar break, briefly changing time, separates the first and second verses.

The chorus—hummable, harmonized, pounding (a piano chord for each beat), jaunty—comes twice as a relief. It’s the song’s sunny public face. But the restlessness returns soon enough, and the song closes with a ritardando bar ending in C, the dominant of F, leaving the song with a sense of unease (cleverly, however, Bowie sequenced the track so that it was followed immediately by “Eight Line Poem,” which starts in F, and so resolving the earlier song).

“Oh! You Pretty Things” was demoed ca. December 1970, and its studio take was recorded ca. July-August 1971: on side A of Hunky Dory. Bowie’s version was preceded by the Noone single (RAK 114), which was released in April 1971 and reached #13, the best showing of a Bowie song since the ’60s (to appease censors Noone changed one line to “the Earth is a beast,” which is an improvement).

Bowie played “Pretty Things” three times in BBC sessions—the first is lost, the second (3 June 1971) is on the Japanese Bowie at the Beeb, while the third (22 May 1972) is on the standard Bowie at the Beeb. Bowie also played it on the BBC’s The Old Grey Whistle Test on 8 February 1972, and during the Ziggy Stardust tour of ’72-’73 he often included the song in a medley with “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” and “All the Young Dudes.” The last murky recording here is from the Spiders’ last concert at the Hammersmith Odeon, on 3 July 1973.

* Rick Wakeman (of Yes fame) played the piano for most of the Hunky Dory sessions, but I’m pretty sure Bowie’s on piano here—the rawness of the performance, for one thing (compare it to the assured playing in “Changes,” for example), and also because Bowie’s piano during the BBC sessions is very close to the studio track.

Top: Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen, “Children in the backlane of Kendal Street,” 1971.


End of Chapter One (1964-1968)

November 6, 2009

68maxmin

This seems a good place to pause and take a breath. Next in line is the first Big Bowie Song (oh, you know which one it is), so I’ll need some time to get the entry together.

For four years, David Bowie had been trying to become a pop star. He made nine singles, one LP, and went through six bands, three managers and four labels. By the end of 1968 he was in a folk trio scrounging for gigs, didn’t have a record contract and had a girlfriend who wanted him to get into something more respectable. The Bowie story easily could have ended right then…

For what it’s worth, here’s my Top 10 from this period. What’s yours?

Silly Boy Blue.
The Laughing Gnome.
The London Boys.
There Is a Happy Land.
London Bye Ta-Ta.
Baby Loves That Way.
Karma Man.
I Dig Everything.
Can’t Help Thinking About Me.
Liza Jane.

Top: changing of the guard, London, 1968.


Bowie Night in NYC

September 15, 2015

lordofthebowiessquare_1024x1024

If you live in the New York area, or are visiting NYC on Saturday, October 17, some good news: I’ll be doing a Rebel Rebel reading at Q.E.D., a fine establishment that’s located in Astoria, one of the most charming neighborhoods in Queens.

Ah, but it’s not merely a reading. It’s “Lord of the Bowies” night, at which the comedian Christian Finnegan and I will co-host an epic Bowie trivia contest. The winner will get a signed book and other swag. There will also be lots of Bowie music: I will lobby for “Laughing Gnome” and “Rupert the Riley” in the playlist. So if you’re a Bowie fan, I can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday night.

Hope you can make it. It should be fun.

You can buy tickets NOW. I recommend that you do so, as there’s fairly limited seating. For directions and other information, Q.E.D.’s main site should have all the answers you need (here’s their FAQ). But if not, leave a comment and I’ll try to help.


The Duncan Jones Films

June 3, 2015

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

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

Bowie, interview in Japan, December 1978.

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

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

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

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

dbroeg

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

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

auteurs

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

Jones, interview, 2011.

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

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

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

man-machine
Moon2009
Moon: Sam, packed in a box

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

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

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

gerty
Moon: Gerty, sympathetic God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

death
res
Moon: death and resurrection

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

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

jake-gyllenhaal-source-code1-600x398

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Source Code: blue, blue, electric blue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Pug Nosed Face

May 14, 2015

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Pug Nosed Face (aka Little Fat Man).
Pug Nosed Face (live, 2007).

One night in 1999, a British pianist named Clifford Slapper was walking to a gig in London. To do so, he had to go past the Astoria, where David Bowie was playing the same night. Slapper had wanted to go to the show but had his prior obligation. So instead he stopped for a moment, heard Bowie’s voice ringing out from the venue, and walked on. Later that night he returned, talked with someone who he later realized was likely Bowie’s guitarist Mark Plati, and regretted missing the gig.

But seven years later, he played piano with Bowie on a television show, so sometimes things work out.

“During production of the second season of Extras, I was contacted by the producer, Charlie Hanson, and was told that David Bowie would be flying over from New York to film an episode, and would be singing and playing the piano, but that he’d specified that he wanted an ‘English rock pianist’ to be brought in to actually play the piano track,” Slapper told me.

Extras was Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s follow-up to The Office. Where The Office was a sad little world, a place where failure and humiliation came as often as the rains fell on Slough, Extras was on a broader canvas. It diagnosed a wider malaise: millennial Britain’s obsession with fame (or at least notoriety), money, status.

For Gervais, Extras was a sign of his upgraded celebrity rating. The Office had a strong cult following in the US and had spawned an American version, and the BBC had partnered with HBO for Gervais and Merchant’s new series, which meant there was a substantial production budget (which likely enabled Bowie’s scene to have the entire Extras crew relocate to an actual club in Hertfordshire (see below) instead of just filming the scene on a soundstage in London, which helped Bowie avoid the paparazzi). And Gervais had acquired some famous fans, letting him stud Extras with celebrity cameos: Ben Stiller, Patrick Stewart, Kate Winslet, Robert DeNiro and, of course, David Bowie.

It’s not surprising that Bowie agreed to appear on Extras, whose jaundiced sensibility and humor (its plots centered on the accumulated humiliations and grievances of Gervais’ character, striving actor Andy Millman) reminded him of what he enjoyed most about Britain. He’d loved The Rutles, screening All You Need Is Cash and playing the soundtrack for his band during his 1978 tour; he’d name-dropped Dudley Moore and Peter Cook’s Behind the Fridge in “Young Americans” and had spent the Low and “Heroes” sessions doing “Pete and Dud” impressions with Eno. And he’d done a few comic turns himself, from his flamboyant director “Sir Roland Moorecock” on HBO’s Dream On to his “Requiem for a Laughing Gnome” on Comic Relief.

For Extras, Gervais and Merchant wrote Bowie as a figure of refined fame, an avatar of impeccable cool. The set-up had the slightly-famous Millman (he has a role in a sitcom that requires him to say a catchphrase, which he hates) visiting a high-end bar and looking for a sympathetic ear from Bowie, who, after a few nods, instead turns to a conveniently-located grand piano and performs what, until 2013, was his last public composition: “Little fat man, who sold his soul…chubby little loser…the clown that no one laughs at…he blows his stupid brains out…see his pug nosed face!”

The scenario’s brilliance lies in that it’s a fan’s worst nightmare: failing Bowie’s hip test and then being stilettoed in public. Certainly, about every account of Bowie over the past 40 years has been of a professional and charming man, whether meeting fans or greeting fellow artists or celebrities (indeed, Bowie’s often been the put-upon one, such as in his ill-fated dinner with Frank Zappa in 1978). But the Bowie mystique is such that you still fear, somehow, you’ll have failed Bowie by coming off as too eager, too boorish, too familiar, and then you’ll pay for it.

“Pug Nosed Face” (still, as of this writing, Bowie’s last television appearance) also encapsulates a common perception of Bowie the artist: someone who regards life as a collection of images to exploit, a man who can take a stray line and wind a song around it and one who can move, in a few bars, from dramatic, ominous phrases to a knees-up singalong refrain. For a time, I thought “Pug Nosed Face” would be the blog’s last entry, and it seemed fitting: Bowie going out with a bout of wickedly funny, slightly surreal cruelty.

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The lyrics were already written as part of Gervais and Merchant’s script.

“I’ve been into Bowie since I was about sixteen,” Gervais told Rolling Stone in 2007. “I sent the lyrics and called him up and asked him if he got them, and he said, ‘Yeah, yeah …'” (switching to a slightly spaced-out, ruminative voice.) And I said to him, ‘We’re thinking of the music to be sort of retro, like “Life on Mars”—and Bowie said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll just knock off a “Life on Mars” for you, shall I?'”

Having received the lyric in New York, Bowie “was asked to write chords to the song and bring them over,” Slapper says. “I was also sent a script and was asked to do the same, in case he declined to do so. One of the first things that happened after we met is that he asked to see what chords I had come up with, and compared them with his. It turned out that they were almost exactly the same, which he found spooky.”

The song’s progression (which Slapper still has and recalls was in A major) was “classic” Bowie in its modulations. Hence the nearly-identical works of Bowie and Slapper, who naturally was writing in a Bowie vein, much as how Gervais and Merchant were writing a “Bowie” lyric.

“It was perfect!” Gervais recalled of the song to Rolling Stone. “All the little bits to it. It was amazing, because what he did was, he gave us Bowie!”

CS & DB AT PIANO square & small

Already in London for his performance with David Gilmour in late May 2006, Bowie filmed his Extras scene in the first week of June.

“We had one day of rehearsal and one day of filming for the scene, which was tricky as it was filmed ‘live’ (without overdubs) with a second piano off-camera for me to play, and it was important for us to synchronize so that his arm movements coincided perfectly with my playing,” Slapper says. “It soon became clear that it would be easier for him to mime to my playing if his fingers were allowed to sometimes make contact with the keys on the piano he sat at. But obviously since it was being filmed as a live performance with sound, we could not have any sound from that piano being heard. I suggested that we simply disengage the action of that piano, and showed the crew how to do this.”

“The rehearsal and filming all took place in a real nightclub [Elberts on Pegs Lane*] not far from London, which was still in use, though obviously closed down for those few days. The club was in Hertford but the base for filming was established at a location a couple of miles away at the small town of Ware in Hertfordshire, which gave rise to some amusement, as I would ask the producer where we would be, and he would say “Ware”, and I would say, ‘yes, where?'”

The song was registered as a three-way split among Bowie, Gervais and Merchant, with “Pug Nosed Face” chosen as its official title (though I imagine many fans call it “Little Fat Man”—Gervais sometimes still refers to it as such in interviews).

I asked Clifford if it felt odd to know that he’d played on possibly the “last” Bowie recording until The Next Day appeared. But he corrected me in noting “this was in 2006, only about three years after Reality, so there was not that sense of a long absence or hiatus from recording on his part, as there might have been if it had been 2011. Nevertheless, I was excited and honored to play on this. Bowie was charming, intelligent, modest, efficient, creative, perceptive. He was a delight to work with: polite, funny, witty and sharp. In rehearsal, we worked out the arrangement in a way which he guided and directed whilst at the same time allowing me to express myself in the way I played it.”

“Pug Nosed Face” would be the last public image of Bowie for over six years: healthy, well-dressed, sitting in a nightclub and leading a pack of yuppies through an eviscerating song. The story could have ended here; indeed, for a time, it seemed that it really had. Not bad, as endings go.

Recorded 5-7 June 2006, Elberts, Hertford, Hertfordshire. First broadcast on BBC2 on 21 September 2006. Bowie’s brief rendition of “Pug Nosed Face” in his introduction of Gervais at the Theater at Madison Square Garden (for the Bowie-curated High Line Festival) on 19 May 2007 remains, to date, his last appearance on stage.

* Elberts relocated in 2009; the original bar is now apparently an art gallery.

Thanks again to Clifford Slapper, who’s also just published a biography of Mike Garson. This came about in part because of Extras, as when Slapper met Garson for the first time in LA in the late 2000s, “a strange and funny coincidence happened. Without knowing about my participation in Extras, Garson started to tell me a story of how he had, a couple of years earlier, enjoyed an English comedy on cable TV, and had seen David Bowie in it, apparently playing piano. Garson spoke to Bowie around that time and had joked with him about it, “I see you’re playing the piano pretty well yourself, now. I guess you won’t be needing me any more!” Garson told me that Bowie had replied, “No, Mike, that wasn’t me! That was some English guy playing the piano.” It was a lovely twist to be able to interrupt Mike’s musings and to say, “Well, I was that guy!” We bonded over this coincidence. Mike and I found that we had a great deal of shared experiences as pianists and as working musicians generally. After hours of conversation, on our first meeting, I pointed out what a fascinating life he’d had and how inspiring his experiences and outlook on life could be. I asked whether there were any biographies of him and he replied that there had not been any yet, but that he thought I would be the perfect person to write it. I started work on it that day.”

You can buy Clifford’s biography, Bowie’s Piano Man: The Life of Mike Garson (Fantom Books) here (UK) and here (USA and elsewhere). Any Bowie fan should enjoy it. I regret that I wasn’t able to read it before I published my book, as it sheds a great deal of light on Garson and his playing.

Top: Bowie on set, Extras; Bowie and Gervais, NYC, 2007; Clifford Slapper and David Bowie (photo: Ray Burmiston).