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

dbodd

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:

db76

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…

dbcavv

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.

dbauto

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!)

DB-Terry

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.

dd

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:

db

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:

dbsanta

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…

db77

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.

1971_window_shirt_600h

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..

db74

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:

ashes-to-ashes

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…

David_Bowie_1976

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…

david-bowie-heroes

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.


Links: Chapters 4-5

March 24, 2015

Chapter 4: The Man On the Stair (1970)

db1970

“The Prettiest Star” (remake, 1973)
“Threepenny Pierrot”
“Columbine”
“The Mirror”
“Buzz the Fuzz”
“Amsterdam” (Brel, live)
“Width of a Circle”
“The Supermen” (remake)
“All the Madmen”
“After All”
“She Shook Me Cold”
“Saviour Machine”
“Running Gun Blues”
“Black Country Rock”
“The Man Who Sold the World” (Lulu, 1974) (SNL, 1979) (Nirvana, 1993) (DB, 1995)
“Tired of My Life”
“Holy Holy” (remake)

More: Aleister Crowley, Confessions; Friedrich Nietzsche: Thus Spake Zarathustra; Biff Rose, 2014 interview; Michael J. Weller, “The Man Who Drew the Man Who Sold the World” (Home Baked Books, website); Asylum (1971, excerpt); “R.D. Laing and Asylum 40 Years Later” (New School lecture); Performance (1970, excerpt w/ “Memo From Turner“). Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970, excerpt).

Chapter 5: Moon Age (1971-1972)

db71

“Oh! You Pretty Things”
“How Lucky You Are (Miss Peculiar)”
“Right On Mother”
“Hang Onto Yourself” (Arnold Corns single)
“Moonage Daydream” (Arnold Corns)
“Rupert the Riley”
“Lightning Frightening”
“Man In the Middle”
“Looking For a Friend”
“Almost Grown”
“Song for Bob Dylan”
“Andy Warhol(Dana Gillespie version, 1971)
“Queen Bitch”
“Bombers”
“It Ain’t Easy” (Ron Davies, original)
“Kooks”
“Fill Your Heart” (Biff Rose, original)
“Quicksand” (demo)
“Changes” (demo)
“Eight Line Poem”
“The Bewlay Brothers”
“Life On Mars?”

72db

“Shadow Man” (Toy)
“Ziggy Stardust” (demo)
“Star” (Chameleon, demo, 1971)
“Velvet Goldmine”
“Sweet Head”
“Round and Round”
“Lady Stardust” (“Song For Marc,” demo)
“Soul Love”
“Five Years”
“Suffragette City”
“Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”
“Starman”

More: Bowie, radio interview, Philadelphia, first US visit, 26 January 1971; The Quatermass Experiment (1953); The Tomorrow People (“The Vanishing Earth,” 1973); Doomwatch documentary; El Sandifer, “Pop Between Realities: Ziggy Stardust“; Jon Pertwee, “I Am the Doctor“; Ralph Willett, on Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius; Andy Warhol: the Complete Picture; Warhol, Tate Gallery exhibit catalog, 1971 (a man flips through it quickly); Bob Dylan v. AJ Weberman, 1971; Blood on Satan’s Claw, main theme, 1971; A Clockwork Orange (1971, “Flat Block Marina” excerpt); Jacques Brel, “Jef,” 1964.


The Last Tour

March 11, 2015

bowie_birmingham_9

some postcards from a very long trip:

Song 2 (Rotterdam, 15 October 2003).
It Can’t Happen Here (Vienna, 29 October 2003).
Do You Know the Way to San Jose? (San Jose, 27 January 2004).

“A Reality Tour”—nine months, 22 countries, 59 songs (+ more snippets*) performed, 112 shows—may be Bowie’s last. Even should he play live again, he won’t undertake the relentless global campaign that his 2003-04 tour was. The people of Australia and New Zealand, Singapore and Hong Kong may never see Bowie again and in North America, it’s fair to say Uncasville (CT), the Quad Cities, Manchester (New Hampshire), Winnipeg, Minneapolis and Hershey (PA) have seen their last Bowie concert.

Tour in capsule: The 57-year-old Bowie, playing markets that, in some cases, he’d last visited in the Eighties, embarked on a grueling schedule that, originally planned for seven months, soon grew to span nearly a year. Each night he played at least two hours and up to 35-song sets. There were a few signs of wear—a bout of flu caused Bowie to cancel a run of shows in December 2003, highly unusual for him (Lou Reed once said that “David never seems to exercise, but he never gets sick”) and his voice was frayed in some mid-winter shows. Upon finishing the last US tour leg, he moved directly to a run of European summer festivals in June 2004. In Prague, he appeared to have a heart attack and after getting through one more show in Germany, he had a heart operation and was forced to cancel the rest of the tour.

He’s never headlined a full concert again. His live appearances dwindled to a handful of guest spots and small sets; after 2007, he was no longer a public performer.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The future distorts the past. The “Reality” shows now seem hubristic in their energy, pacing and length—why was Bowie pushing himself so much? Take it easy, man! you want to yell at the computer screen when you see a concert clip. But this belies the evidence of the time. Fan reports, newspaper concert reviews, tour diaries of players like Gail Ann Dorsey, video footage of the shows—all document a man seemingly in robust health, in fine voice, eager to play each night.

He said he really was, at last. He’d been wary of singing live since the Sixties. “It was not something I looked forward to very much,” he told the Weekly Dig in late 2003. “I’ve always loved the putting together everything. I love the idea of making albums and writing albums and conceptualizing and all that side of the thing, you know? The actual going out on the road side of the thing—one, I never thought I was that good at it, and two, I just didn’t enjoy the process too much. I don’t know, maybe because I didn’t feel competent as an artist.”

But after Tin Machine and his road-heavy mid-Nineties, he’d developed a taste for the stage. “We did a lot of festivals throughout Europe. I mean, heavens, over a two-year period we did so many,” he told an interviewer. “We were working with really top-rate bands like The Prodigy, bands of that ilk, and we were going down really well. I hadn’t been amongst that many bands continually so it was like, ‘Phew, got to measure myself against this every night’. And it was like, ‘You know what, we’re going down really well considering all these bands are like half my age, some of them a third of my age.'”

 BOW46w

Touring as “himself” to say goodbye, if unknowingly, to the world, Bowie quietly solved the problem of how to reconcile his hits (“singalong time,” he called it) with newer, lesser-known material by just putting the songs cheek-by-jowl in a set, sequencing them so that the crowd wouldn’t get restless and he wouldn’t get bored playing too many old chestnuts. “I can’t do a full evening’s worth of those songs [like “Starman”] because I’ll go barmy. You become a karaoke machine,” he said in 2003 (“look mum, I’m a jukebox!” he snarked after singing “Starman” one night). On stage he used the image of travel to describe his sets to crowds—you’ll go down an unfamiliar road for a while, so just enjoy the sights, and soon enough “you’ll recognize a street, then a house.” (“You’ll recognize this house,” he said, introducing “Ashes to Ashes.”)

He didn’t go easy on his audiences: “Heathen (The Rays)” was occasionally a set-closer or encore piece. “Sunday,”The Motel” and “The Loneliest Guy” (the latter a bathroom break for some griping concertgoers) were regulars. Nor were the oldies only his top-charting hits. There was no “Space Oddity” or “Golden Years,” but plenty of “Fantastic Voyage” and “Be My Wife” and a somber “Loving the Alien.” Over the months, Bowie slowly reshaped his sets into being more retrospective—by spring 2004 he was playing only a handful of Reality songs while cycling in “Queen Bitch,” “Bewlay Brothers,” “Five Years,” “Quicksand,” “Panic In Detroit” and “Diamond Dogs,” mainly for encores.

Judging by the audience reaction to this tour, I think I’ve done the right thing,” he told a reporter midway through the tour, in February 2004. “I think I’ve chosen quite accurately how far I can go with quite new and obscure things, and how much I should balance that with pieces everybody knows.” That said, fan recollections of the shows recounted a fairweather portion of audiences growing impatient at times. “Give us some hits, Davy!” one man loudly yelled in Toronto between songs.

An inspiration was Bob Dylan, who in 2003 was well over a decade into his “Never Ending Tour.” Learning that Dylan made his band keep 70 songs in their repertoire, so that if the mood struck him one night he could play “Lenny Bruce,” Bowie pushed his band to learn around 60 songs and he altered set lists regularly to bring in new pieces and shuffle out old ones. At first this churn was trying for the band—Dorsey wrote in her tour journal that after one show in Paris where Bowie swapped in a bunch of under-rehearsed songs, the band “all felt as if we had fumbled through a tough football match we knew we had lost from the beginning.”** But soon they had it tacked down, capable of playing any era that Bowie threw at them.

bowie-03-blondie-82_119643b

In the works since 2001, the tour’s impetus was in great part financial (which, of course, is the impetus behind every rock tour in history). Despite high chart placings in Britain and Europe, Bowie’s later albums had sold relatively modestly and he got scant airplay for his new singles. It didn’t help matters that the music industry was in free-fall, tottering thanks to Napster, plummeting once the iPod hit critical mass in 2004. Making a living by selling albums was for suckers, Bowie said. “I don’t see any hope for the industry at all. We’re watching it collapse—it’s definitely imploding—and it’s become a source of irrelevance.

So touring was Bowie’s main source of new revenue (at the time, all earnings from much of his back catalog were going to Prudential Insurance, holder of the Bowie Bonds). And his Area 2 festival shows of 2002 had grossed $4.7 million, with attendance down from earlier “mini tours.” Bowie’s people surveyed fans and found them unhappy with the recent shows, which had been built around festivals and sharing the stage with other headliners. There was a hunger for an undiluted Bowie, by a global market. He hadn’t been to Singapore and Hong Kong since 1983, Australia and New Zealand since 1987, Japan since 1996, South America since 1997 (and he never would make it back to South America).

Using goliath Clear Channel Entertainment, Bowie and his advisers drafted a flexible tour schedule—he’d play the arenas he knew could sell out (like Wembley) but he’d also book 2,000-seat theaters in less predictable markets. And he often underestimated demand: he booked the 4,400-seat Rosemont Theatre for his Chicago stop, but sales were enough to justify playing the Rosemont two more nights. The tour wound up grossing $46 million, even with its premature end.

52985833_67d84b77ed

I know I’m a solo artist, but there are aspects of being a solo artist I don’t particularly enjoy, being separated from the others. I don’t like the feeling of being closeted somewhere on my own. I’ve always liked being part of a band—I did with the Spiders, I liked it with Tin Machine and that feeds back into the music. It starts to take on a coherence and a solidarity within the seven of us.

Bowie, Scotland on Sunday, June 2004 (his last newspaper interview to date).

His band was the “Hours” tour rhythm section (Dorsey and Sterling Campbell), old standby Mike Garson, guitarists Gerry Leonard (playing the “Fripp,” “Belew” and “Gabrels” roles) and Earl Slick (playing himself) and the most recent addition, from 2002: Catherine Russell, a utility player who sang, played keyboards, percussion and guitar. They were a no-nonsense crew who’d worked with Bowie, in some cases, over decades. If they lacked in improvisation, mainly keeping to established arrangements, they made up for it in power and precision, aided by a cracking sound mix in which “David’s voice sits on top, but this is not a Vegas-style show. The band is every bit as present as they need to be,” said front-of-the-house engineer Pete Keppler.

The aim was to make the band heard clearly throughout the room, even the largest stadium gigs. So Keppler and monitor engineer Michael Prowda used a JBL VerTec PA system, with 14 cabinets and subwoofers on each side of the stage and Prowda mixing each song live with a 14-track console (“Every song is a scene and I have some 50-odd scenes”). Bowie used a vocal effects system that included a Digitech Vocalist and a Moog moogerfooger to alter his voice on a whim. “David has two volume pedals onstage where he mixes his own distortion and doubling and sets his volume level. He’s hearing the balance in his head and wants it to sound similarly in the house,” Prowda said.

174000630_75cbf15bbc_o

Wearing jeans, a t-shirt and scarf, leather boots or Chuck Taylors and a tattered jacket to be discarded after a few songs*** (“it’s a T-shirt and jeans type show, believe me that’s what it is”), Bowie became something of a traveling politician and emcee, pulling the same jokes each night, gurning, pantomiming (doing a runway strut for “Fashion,” Pierrot-isms for “Ashes to Ashes,” drag queen moves for “China Girl”), bantering with the crowd (“how DO you get your hair that color? What product do you use?” to a fan in Copenhagen; calling one guy in Atlanta “fancy pants”), having the crowd sing verses of “All the Young Dudes” and “China Girl.” “Constantly grinning,” Billboard noted of Bowie’s performance in New York. In Berkeley he “pranced theatrically, calling himself the Artful Dodger, imitated Americans and Americans imitating the British,” a reviewer wrote. In Denver, he did a bit of his old Elephant Man performance. He usually opened shows with “[YOUR CITY HERE] you bunch of crazy motherfuckers!”

It was all his “schtick,” as he described it to journalists. “I just want to have a laugh with the audience. I don’t want it any other way,” he said. “If there’s a sense of seriousness, that comes in the songs themselves….Performing isn’t a life-threatening situation in the scheme of things.” Or as the Kinks once sang, it’s only jukebox music.

This was a return to an old form: the fey, witty folk musician of “Bowie and Hutch,” who’d made his hippie audiences crack up between numbers. Or the would-be cabaret star of 1968, the “all-round entertainer” persona that his old manager Kenneth Pitt had believed was Bowie’s best bet for stardom. Reviving this glad-handing figure for the “A Reality Tour” (the indefinite article, mind) was a theatrical bit, a way for Bowie to serve as stage manager and frontman.

But he also seemed intent on de-mystifying “Bowie” at last. I’ll do songs I like, I’ll play songs you like, let’s have fun. The only stage props were catwalks, video screens and some tree branches suspended in mid-air. Each night of the tour found a magician walking on stage in shirt sleeves, showing you how he made his assistant disappear via a set of mirrors, recalling favorite sleights of hand. And then still making you fall for the trick.

db

Then his luck turned.

Early summer 2004 was dismal in northern Europe, with nearly every Bowie festival appearance that June plagued by rains and wind. At the Norwegian Wood Festival in Oslo, on 18 June, he was struck in the eye by a lollipop, causing him to understandably lose his shit for a moment. Gerry Leonard said a fan had somehow hit a bullseye (the thrower was a mortified thirtysomething who claimed she’d just been waving her hands when someone knocked into her and caused her to project the lollipop). The next festival, in Finland, passed uneventfully in rain. Then came Prague.

He opened with “Life on Mars?” for the first time on the tour, and eight songs in, while singing “Reality,” it was obvious to fans in the front rows that Bowie was in pain, struggling to finish the song. He left the stage, the band keeping going with “New Career In a New Town” and “Be My Wife” (sung by Cat Russell). “‘That’s not supposed to happen,” Leonard recalled thinking. “He was really feeling terrible. it happened right there on the stage: that’s showbiz.” Returning to apologize, Bowie blamed a trapped nerve in his shoulder. He sang “China Girl,” still in noticeable pain, and left the stage again after an aborted “Station to Station.”

It was as if the persona he’d developed for the tour, the music man who gave you a bang for the buck, wouldn’t let him end a set early. So he went back out again to finish “Station” and sing “Modern Love” and “The Man Who Sold the World” while sitting on a stool and clutching his arm. Finally he pulled the plug. Our Czech correspondent, longtime commenter Maj, was there: she told me that the crowd soon grew aware something was wrong: “There might have been a few boos because it got cut short, but I think mostly we were confused & a bit worried.”

While not confirmed, it seems apparent that Bowie had a heart attack that night, possibly while singing. It may not have been the first time, either. Gabrels told Marc Spitz, one of Bowie’s biographers, that “I knew for years that he was having some chest pains, but he swore me to secrecy, and I should have told Iman.”

149257640_cbd087b7c3_b

If all this turned out badly and I didn’t enjoy it, I’d just have to create a character to get out of being me again, I suppose. Now there’s a story! There’s an album there (laughs).

Bowie, Weekly Dig.

There would be one more show.

The annual Hurricane Festival is held on a motorcycle racetrack in Scheeßel, a German village southwest of Hamburg. An unassuming place to close a story that began on Bloomsday, 16 June 1962, with 15-year-old David Jones’ first-ever public gig, playing Shadows covers at the Bromley Tech PTA Fete.

Fans noticed nothing amiss during the set, with Bowie moving around on stage and playing some guitar (he did seem to have a moment of pain during “Ashes to Ashes,” clutching his arm again). As evening drew in, it got colder, the North Sea winds coming across the Lower Saxony plains, and Bowie donned a simple grey sweatshirt. It’s poignant: Bowie finally reduced to the human, looking like a handsome, tired dad at a football game. Or a fishing boat captain weathering a storm (via Chris Barrus).

hqdefault
“Heroes” (Hurricane Festival).

He closed the set with “Heroes.” Leonard starts with an ascending, choppy figure on guitar, jabbing against a backdrop of Sterling Campbell’s snare and cymbals. Bowie holds back, knotting his fingers below his chin, as if he’s outside looking in, even slightly bemused by his old dramatics (he does a little dolphin dance). Dorsey’s pensive, working down the song. Slick comes in, cool and indifferent, chewing gum. At last, the wailing Fripp riff (courtesy of Leonard’s E-bow) appears and Bowie starts drawing power from somewhere in him, diving into the song, resurfacing, torching through its last verses. And the SHAME spread on the OTHER SIDE!, gesturing off towards a lost Berlin to the east. And NOTHING and NO ONE will HELP us! while Campbell plays hard enough to power a city.

Do they, does he, know it’s the end? But it is the end. An end, at least. The moment has chosen itself. This is the wake for David Bowie. We’ll never see his like again. Nor will he.

UK: The Nokia Isle of Wight Festival 2004 - Day Three

He encored with “Life On Mars?” (opening with it was bad mojo), “Suffragette City” and he closed the show, as he had for almost every other show on the tour, with “Ziggy Stardust.” The next day, at St. Georg Hospital in Hamburg, a surgeon performed an angioplasty to treat a blocked artery in Bowie’s heart, inserting a stent to open up a blood vessel narrowed by plaque.

Bowie was in hospital for over a week. One by one, his appearances at the remaining June festivals and the eleven July festival dates were cancelled. Scotland’s T in the Park, where Bowie had hoped to meet one of his new favorite bands, Franz Ferdinand. The Xacobeo Festival in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, where he would have shared a bill with Iggy Pop again.

He gave a public statement, said he was irked that the tour had to end this way but that he was feeling better and hoped to “get back to work” within a month. It would be a touch longer than that.

1401446022_1079c6817e_o

Following a rehearsal gig in August and a “satellite link-up” spectacle filmed at Riverside Studios in September, the tour ran from 7 October 2003 (Copenhagen) to 25 June 2004 (Hurricane). The 22-23 November 2003 shows at The Point in Dublin were filmed, with an edited selection of performances released as the A Reality Tour DVD on 19 October 2004 (a slightly-expanded version was released on CD in 2010).

Of immense help to this entry was the site Bowie Wonderworld, which provided a day-by-day account of the tour while it happened, compiling set lists and fan testimonies.

* No clips on YT, but Bowie also sang bits of songs like “Puppet On a String,” “My Funny Valentine” and “Here Comes the Sun” at other dates.

** Though he sound-checked and rehearsed “Win,” Bowie never played it, only humming it once at his penultimate US show on 4 June 2004.

*** In Adelaide on 23 February 2004, Bowie showed up in a grey zoot suit, sporting a trilby, braces and two fob chains, claiming he’d “found this pair of gardening trousers.” He was back to his usual “casual” costume by the following show, later saying he’d switched into gouster duds out of boredom.

Photos: a curtain call (unsure from which show); Melbourne, 26 February 2004 (Trevor Wilson); Pittsburgh, 17 May 2004 (Keith Sparbanie); Bowie and Debbie Harry backstage in Manchester, 17 November 2003 (Ian Hodgson); Houston, 24 April 2004 (Mark Jeremy); Kansas City, 10 May 2004 (Deryck Higgins); Indianapolis, 20 May 2004; Isle of Wight Festival, 13 June 2004 (Anthony Abbott); Hurricane Festival; Bowie at the Rainbow Theatre, London, 1972.


The Last Push

June 19, 2014

3g11002u-88

Well, I’d wanted to get another post out but in all honesty, I cannot do anything else until I finally finish this manuscript. I go on vacation the week of July 7, so it’s got to be done by then, because I just want to finally finish Wolf Hall and read some Kieron Gillen comics and not think about Bowie that week.

So: last leg. Bear with me, and once this is over, we’ll get back to a weekly or even a semi-weekly (imagine!) pace.

And if you’ve a yen to talk about something Bowie, talk about some of the er, utter absolute classic Bowie songs that have like 10 bloody comments on them!

Here’s “Space Oddity”!
Here’s “Quicksand”!
Here’s “The Man Who Sold the World“!
Here’s “John I’m Only Dancing“!

Have at it. See you on the other side. I think you’re going to like this book.

all best

C.O.

Top: 1915 Irish Great War propaganda poster, via WWI Propaganda Posters.


Xmas Grab Bag

December 23, 2013

Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy.
Feed the World/The Snowman.
Peter and the Wolf.

Well, I’d hoped to get through one more song before the new year but it’s likely not going to happen. Christmas has crept upon us rather without warning. This is a suitable end to the slowest-paced year of this blog’s short life. Where in fleeter days, I made it through The Man Who Sold the World through the end of Station to Station in a year, in 2013 I made it from Leon/Outside through…about half of ‘Hours.’ The main culprit has been this brick of pages as shown here, which should be ready for public consumption fairly soon.

Please have a fine holiday and thanks for sticking around. I greatly appreciate, as always, all commenters and anyone who’s had a kind word to say about this project (whose final year could be 2014—we’ll see how it goes. If Bowie puts out another album……)

All best,

C.O.


Safe

October 2, 2013

ultimos amarres

Safe (remake of “Safe in this Sky Life”).

It is not the literal past that rules us, save, possibly, in a biological sense. It is images of the past. These are often as highly structured and selective as myths. Images and symbolic constructs of the past are imprinted, almost in the manner of genetic information, on our sensibility. Each new historical era mirrors itself in the picture and active mythology of its past or of a past borrowed from other cultures…

George Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle, 1971.1

The past, it almost shimmers down

“Safe.”

What happened in 1998?

The president of the United States was impeached for perjuring himself about a shabby affair. Around the world: wars, calamities, children, television, the usual things. Never mind that. What happened to Bowie? It was the year he finally was consumed by the past.

He entered 1998 still talking up jungle, still acting out Earthling, but he left it readying his next face. This would be the “street clothes” Bowie of the turn of the millennium: flannel shirts, his hair a rat-brown fringe, granny glasses. And as a variant, a wan majordomo figure first seen on the cover of Hours. In either case, this new Bowie came off as something like a decommissioned rock star; an aging hipster caretaker of his past lives.

Sure, he’d changed his look before; he’d soon change it again. But any subsequent changes would be minor cosmetic variations on this image. The “new” Bowie of 1999 would be his last edition. He stopped here. As the cliche has it, he finally fell to earth.

He’d always had a curatorial side, surprising fans with the carefully-deployed antique, weaving a fresh song over the bones of an old one. But there was also his obverse: the man devoted to the present, seemingly bent on claiming a stake in the future: an artist happy to be a tuning fork for more discordant sounds, the ambassador of the weird to the straight world.

Now the future side of him went into remission. Rather than make another evasive maneuver like Tin Machine, he went inward, back into his old music. Not all at once (his next album would shuttle between a world-weary tone and the last squawks of his mapgie self); he edged into rock classicism as one does a hot bath. But his music became, more and more, extensions to and rewrites of his old work, rather than attempts to claim new territories. It began, as these things do, with the cartoon Rugrats.

golmin

Karyn Rachtman, an executive producer and musical director of the first Rugrats film, asked Bowie to contribute a song. Rachtman (sister of Ricky, late of Headbanger’s Ball) wanted to make the soundtrack hip. This was the coming thing: children’s entertainment had to appeal to parents, to assure them they hadn’t lost their souls by reproducing. So she got Iggy Pop, Beck, Patti Smith, No Doubt and Elvis Costello (the last two in a duet). From Bowie, she wanted a proper “David Bowie song.” Ziggy Stardust guitars, sweeping strings, the Thin White Duke croon. (“A little bit of ‘Space Oddity,’ ‘”Heroes”‘ and ‘Absolute Beginners’ rolled into one,” its producer said). An amalgam of the popular imagination’s Bowie. And Bowie gave her what she wanted.

As the song, “Safe In This Sky Life,” was never released or bootlegged, all we have to go by are descriptions of its making, which was elaborate. The track featured a 24-piece string section, Reeves Gabrels on guitar (he’d co-written the song), harmony vocals by Richard Barone (the Bongos), drums by Clem Burke (Blondie) and keyboards by Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater). To produce it, Bowie had dialed up his past.

Tony Visconti hadn’t worked with, or even talked to, Bowie in 15 years. There were reportedly sore feelings on both sides, Visconti for being elbowed out of Let’s Dance and for his contributions to the “Berlin” records erased in the press; Bowie for Visconti’s alleged verbosity in interviews.2 Visconti said the reconciliation, when it came, was simple: Bowie just called him up one day and asked him to make a record. As it happened, Visconti reappeared just as Bowie’s relationship with Gabrels had begun to fray. By the end of 1999, Gabrels was gone; Visconti has been Bowie’s collaborator ever since.

“Safe in This Sky Life” was cut from the Rugrats film during editing, after the sequence for which it was intended was deleted. There was apparently nowhere else in the movie for the song to go (not even over the end credits?). “He delivered a song far beyond my wildest dreams, and now I can’t even use it,” Rachtman lamented to the press. Bowie, saying that the song “doesn’t fit in with what I’m doing at the moment,” put it on the shelf.

rugrta

The released version of “Safe” is one Bowie and Visconti recorded during the Heathen sessions in 2001. All that remains in it from the 1998 take are the string tracks, Visconti said.

So it’s difficult, even foolhardy, to speculate what the original sounded like based on its remake. The guitars, played possibly by Mark Plati or Bowie himself, do sound as if they’re tracing over Gabrels’ original lines. But much of  “Safe” feels as if you’ve heard it somewhere before in the Bowie catalog. The verses begin with close to the same top melody as “The Supermen” (cf. “When all the world was heavy hung” to “frozen to the glass again“). There’s a “period” synthesizer effect that sounds like the Stylophone of “Space Oddity” at times. Visconti’s strings, anticipating and parrying the vocal, have a massed lushness that calls back to the likes of “Win” or “In the Heat of the Morning.”

It’s a song as a series of sensory triggers: its dramatic moments—the rising chord progression in the verses, the guitar-smeared shifts to the chorus, the long-held “skyyyliiiiiifes”—suggest a common idea of a “great” Bowie song. “Safe” rewarded your perseverance as a fan: this is what you wanted, and here it is, better than you imagined. (Matt Chamberlain’s drumming could power a small city). It’s Bowie starring as “Bowie”; it was as if he was covering himself. The lyric also carefully matches a gentle conservatism (safety, acceptance, resignation) with a spiritual yearning—after all, it began as a song for hip parents. It’s a lovely song, one of his best of the period, and there’s something hollow inside it.

velvet

So what did he think about Glam being big again?

“Was it really?” he says in his campest ‘suits you sir’ voice. “I felt that it was a synthetic recycling on the back of the belief that Velvet Goldmine would be a smash movie and be able to sell all those spin-off books and records. It was PR led. It didn’t come from the streets. 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,” he says, pausing for a moment. “Also there was a lot more shopping.”

Bowie, interview by Andrew Davies, The Big Issue, January 1999.

When Bowie and Visconti first cut “Safe,” glam nostalgia was thick in the air, thanks in part to Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, released in autumn 1998. A barely-veiled Bowie biopic as directed by an obsessive Bowiephile (it even has characters based on Kenneth Pitt and Corrinne Schwab), Velvet Goldmine was the middle piece of a trilogy Haynes made about pop stars and stardom. Superstar enacted the tragedy of Karen Carpenter via Barbie dolls; I’m Not There would split Bob Dylan into six incarnations of fan myths, from amphetamine hipster to Guthrie disciple.4

Haynes had sent Bowie an early version of Velvet Goldmine’s script and had 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. He didn’t like the script, he said: all that his analogue character, Brian Slade, did was give blow jobs.

You can see his point: Slade, played blankly by Jonathan Rhys-Myers, has no inner life; he’s just a series of beautiful reactions. Haynes’ film was sharp, some of its casting was inspired (Toni Colette’s tragic Angela Bowie), and it was lovingly detailed.5 But for Bowie Goldmine came off as obnoxious and cynical (in perhaps the same way he would find this project misguided and tone-deaf.)6 Haynes film was an aging glam fan’s perspective, rewriting the glam era as a collective fan myth (hence Slade winds up as an Eighties fascist global pop icon, sporting Billy Idol hair). The film’s language was half-remembered Bowie gossip; it played with pieces of Bowie’s life for sport. It cast Bowie as a character in someone else’s drama, where Bowie had always written his own lines.

That said, there was another reason for Bowie’s rejection. In 1998, he was planning a Ziggy Stardust film of his own, and didn’t want his songs appear in what he considered a competitor picture.

golmine

This Ziggy Stardust project was first mentioned in autumn 1998, and it seems to have filled the gap left by the collapse of the Outside sequels and concerts (see the upcoming “Seven”). The grandiosity of the Ziggy plan, its wild scope matched by apparently nothing resembling a budget or a workable blueprint, suited Bowie’s restless mood of the time: his jumping from film to film; his agreeing to host a season of The Hunger; his various immersions in the Internet and video games.

It’s hard to tell just how far the Ziggy project ever got: were there scripts commissioned? sets designed? (probably the latter: he always loved making set models.) Ziggy was supposed to appear in 2002 to commemorate the album’s 30th anniversary. It would be a three-pronged attack. A film (“an objective piece about how [Ziggy] is viewed and perceived by his audience,” Bowie said—so, in other words, Velvet Goldmine), a theater piece (“more internal, more reflective of the immediate repercussions of Ziggy and his effect on the people around him…his close intimates, how he thinks and what his perception of the world really is,” possibly including mime sequences) and “Internet” (the latter would be “pure fun, with hypertext links so you can find out who his mum was, and things like that—a huge exploration of his background. It’s sort of factground, and startlingly info-packed maps and photographs“).

Naturally, there would be tie-ins: a new book of photos by Mick Rock, a DVD with rare concert footage and a double-CD with unearthed and re-recorded Ziggy Stardust outtakes (including the legendary “Black Hole Kids”). In an interview with Radio One’s The Net in 1998, Bowie waxed effusive: “..I’ve found bits and pieces of songs that I obviously had written for [Ziggy Stardust] but never finished off. It’s as if I’ll be complementing what’s already there with other pieces that were started but not actually finished at the time, so they have an authenticity of the period about them. For me, I think it’ll be an extraordinary thing to see what kind of animal it becomes eventually!…It’s just a question of finishing off what might be a 90-second or a two-minute piece, taking it obviously the way it wanted to go and finishing it off and keeping the sound of the material in the period.”

(This idea—Bowie taking a scrap from an old session and working it into a releasable track, is the closest he’s come to explaining alleged “Berlin-era” outtakes like “I Pray Ole.“)

Gabrels thought the project had the potential for disaster. The only way it could have worked, he later said, would be to record the new Ziggy songs at Trident Studios with Ken Scott or Visconti, using only 16-track decks and keeping to the instruments that Mick Ronson and Bowie had used in 1971: Mellotron, Moog, recorder, 12-string acoustic, a single Les Paul guitar with a Cry Baby Wah-Wah pedal. If you’re going for nostalgia, get the details as right as Todd Haynes did. If not, Bowie’s new Ziggy tracks risked sounding like the surviving Beatles’ ghost-duets with John Lennon in the Anthology series: a glossy simulacrum of his old music, made palatable by nostalgia and the indulgence of fans.

The Ziggy project apparently died around the turn of the century. By 2002, when Ziggy Stardust‘s 30th anniversary was only commemorated by a CD that repackaged the Rykodisc extras, Bowie told Rolling Stone that “I’m running like fuck from that [idea]…Can you imagine anything uglier than a nearly 60-year-old Ziggy Stardust? I don’t think so! We actually tried a few years ago to pull a movie together but at every turn it was like…” Ziggy Stardust deserved to remain an idea, a fan memory, he said, rather than “presenting some nerd in a red wig, having run through a really slack arsed movie script.”

ratsfoiledagain

So: a seeming debacle avoided. Yet the Ziggy project still had consumed much of Bowie’s time around the turn of the millennium, and it paralleled his decision to rerecord his old Mod songs for Toy. Both of these, his biggest ambitions in 1999-2000, would wind up as unreleased failures; both were excavations and reworkings of past glories. It’s easy to see why he didn’t have much time for the present. He’d been used to making knight’s moves across the board; now, with his pieces depleted, he was left to devise workable defenses.

“Safe,” a “Bowie-sings-‘Bowie'” track intended for and scrapped by a cartoon soundtrack, and which wound up being issued as its own obscure cover, sums up this period as well as anything could. There’s a majesty in “Safe,” but it’s a borrowed majesty. One line from it in particular could serve as the credo of Bowie’s post-millennial years:

…From now on,
The things will move more slowly…

Recorded (“Safe in This Sky Life”) ca. August 1998, unreleased. “Safe,” cut during the Heathen sessions of July-September 2001, was released as a download for BowieNet subscribers in June 2002, then as a B-side of the “Everybody Says ‘Hi'” CD single on 16 September 2002. The only edition of Heathen on which it appears (in a longer edit) is the rare SACD.

The Ziggy Stardust Companion was especially valuable for this entry, as it’s compiled the most details about Bowie’s reaction to Velvet Goldmine as well as the ill-fated Ziggy revival.

1 Cited by Bowie as one of his top 100 books. The list is as much an exhibition piece as the Ziggy Stardust costumes of Bowie’s ongoing show: it’s a scavenger hunt for fans.

2: There’s a detail in Marcello Carlin’s wonderful piece on ABC’s The Lexicon of Love: that Visconti and Bowie visited ABC during Lexicon‘s recording, and that Bowie was taken by “The Look of Love” in particular. You wonder if Bowie had stuck with Visconti for Let’s Dance (recorded in late 1982) instead of using Nile Rodgers, whether that record would’ve been more in line with what Martin Fry et al were doing at the time.

3 The biographer Dave Thompson claims, citing an anonymous “latter-day associate,” that Bowie had been irritated by Visconti spilling the beans in interviews over the years. However, this theory is weakened by the fact that a few months before Bowie contacted Visconti, Mojo ran an article in which Visconti was on record saying essentially that he and Mick Ronson had co-written The Man Who Sold the World (this was the article that inspired Bowie to snap at journalists to go back to the record and listen again: “no one writes chord changes like that“). If Bowie was so irked by such statements, this was a pretty big one.

4: Though Haynes braced for Dylan to freeze him out like Bowie had, Dylan instead let Haynes use whatever songs he wanted, including the Basement Tapes era title song, released for the first time on the film’s soundtrack.

5: Curt Wild’s band is the Rats; Slade’s first words to Mandy, “do you jive?” were allegedly Bowie’s first words to Angela; a boy recites the Hughes Mearns poem that inspired “Man Who Sold the World”; one of Slade’s press conferences has him say, almost word for word, a notorious line Bowie told Rolling Stone in 1971; and so on and so on.

6: According to David Buckley’s bio, Brian Eno was spied at the cinema, laughing his way through Velvet Goldmine.

Top: Dante Busquets, “Últimos Amarres: Laurie, Mariana y Leslie, Cuernavaca, Mor, 1998”; various shots from The Rugrats Movie (Kovalyov/Virgien, 1998) and Velvet Goldmine (Haynes, 1998).


The Hearts Filthy Lesson

February 20, 2013

pride

The Hearts Filthy Lesson.
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (video).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (Trent Reznor “alt” remix).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (Rubber Mix).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (Simple Test Mix).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (first live performance, 1995).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (Late Show with David Letterman, 1995).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (live, Loreley Festival, 1996).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (live, Phoenix Festival, 1996).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (live, 50th Birthday concert, 1997).
The Hearts Filthy Lesson (live, 1997).

Born during the Leon sessions in March 1994, “The Hearts (sic) Filthy Lesson” was systematically dirtied for more than a year before it emerged as Outside‘s debut single. It sold meagerly (UK #35, US #92) and some critics (including this one) have argued that Bowie would’ve had a better shot had he led off with “Strangers When We Meet” or “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town.”

But it’s obvious why Bowie chose “Hearts” as his opening salvo. The track packed a punch; it was cold and weird, his boldest shot at re-invention since Tin Machine. It signaled a new Bowie persona, or at least the return of an old one: obscurantist, distant, menacing, clinically obsessed with blood and guts. It was The Man Who Sold the World, minus the folkie trappings; a Wan White Duke.

Bowie worked up some visual counterparts to the track, most notoriously its Samuel Bayer-directed video that implied some grotesque sacrificial ritual underway (minotaurs, decapitations, Pinhead piercings, baptisms, a goth-punk Last Supper).* More interesting was Bowie’s performance of “Hearts” on the Late Show With David Letterman, the day before Outside was released in September 1995. For those who had grown accustomed to the icily charming Bowie of the Eighties and Black Tie White Noise, this new incarnation, clad in black leather and wearing eyeliner, black nail polish and what looked like tinted contact lenses, gave off a hostile, jittery vibe. With an air of bemused contempt, getting lost in his mad pantomime, Bowie contorted himself, moving in exaggerated, jerky gestures; he acted as if the audience didn’t exist, that he was playing to a mirror, then he would suddenly acknowledge the crowd with leers and half-smiles. His band clashed behind him. Mike Garson played a solo like a Teppanyaki chef, while Gail Ann Dorsey (this was the first time most Bowie fans got to see her) was cool charisma.

“Hearts,” whose production had a flavor of Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral,* a favorite of Bowie and Reeves Gabrels’, was allegedly from the perspective of Nathan Adler. But its lyric was more a series of warnings that could be assembled in any order (something in our blood…falls upon deaf ears…her hundred miles to hell….I’m already in my grave). Two of the characters mentioned in the lyric, Adler and Ramona, hail from the character segues, while two others, Paddy and Miranda, are just names. The latter have as much dramatic import in the song, if not more. (“Paddy” could be a Beckett-esque nickname for God, a fellow Art Crime detective, or another version of the Minotaur/Artist character that Bowie was developing in other songs).

What was the heart’s filthy lesson? Bowie once said it was knowing the certainty of one’s impending death (the lesson is that the heart will stop one day). But the heart’s also filthy because it’s a blood-sponge. The center of our bodies is a grisly instrument, a ceaselessly throbbing muscle that we pretty up into a shiny red icon used to symbolize our soul, our ability to love, the best of our natures. So there’s a trace of Bowie’s Gnostic leanings in his song’s title phrase—the body’s a prison and we grant nobility to our jailer, making a happy god of our dirty waterworks.

db

The song itself…is made up of juxtapositions and fragments of information. [It] doesn’t have a straightforward coherent message to it. None of the album has any message; it’s really a compression of information, it’s just information: make of it what you will….The filthy lesson in question is the fact that life is finite. That realization, when it comes, usually later in life, can either be a really daunting prospect or it makes things a lot clearer.

Bowie, on “Hearts Filthy Lesson,” promotional film for Outside, 1995.

“Hearts” began as a group improvisation in the Leon sessions (Garson started things off by playing a hook on piano, while Eno’s contribution was to loop a French radio broadcast and blast it every four bars) and it shows in the song’s structure, as “Hearts” can seem like a welded-together collection of pieces. There’s a “verse” where Bowie sings a D-flat minor melody over a G-flat bass pedal point, a “bridge” that reconciles with the bass pedal by moving to G-flat Lydian (“Oh Ramona”), then to G-flat minor (“something in our skies”), and an F-flat Lydian “chorus,” while the song, after a few more permutations, ultimately closes back in G-flat.

Interweaving the various sections are a set of motifs—a Bo Diddley bass hook, a jabbing Garson piano fill that calls back to Iggy and the Stooges’ “Raw Power,” a guitar riff (Kevin Armstrong, or Reeves Gabrels on his Parker Fly, plays trills down the low E string, punctuating the motion with a quick run of descending notes on the D string.) For stitching between sections there’s an eight-bar antic Garson piano solo, some helpings of the guitar riff and a sudden sigh that triggers the song’s dramatic peak, a G major second bridge (“Paddy will you carry me”).

The devil’s in the details, which were likely Eno’s biggest contributions to the track: the consonant, sibilant backing vocals from the Edwards family**; the dog-whistle-pitched noise (a tuning fork?) that sounds on every other downbeat in the chorus; the mutterings underneath Bowie’s vocals; roiling waves of static; shaken chains; the plaints of a guitar so distorted that it sounds like synthesized strings (around 3:15).

Bowie’s singing is phenomenal and precise throughout the track, from the snarling ease of his opening verse, to the bridge sequence of “OHH Ra-MONa…if there was ON-ly” that Bowie disrupts with “be-TWEEN us,” keeping the stress rhythm but gleefully spoiling his internal rhyme scheme. Or the doomed-sounding “I’m already five years older…already in my grave,” where Bowie seems to intone a mournful organ line against Garson’s agitated piano. Gary Numan called it one of Bowie’s best vocals, saying to David Buckley, “Bowie oversings a lot of the time. He sings harder than he needs to…[“Hearts”] was right back into that not-so-full-on singing.”

That said, Gabrels may have salvaged the song. Bowie had second-guessed himself at some point during the overdubs, writing a completely different lyric based on English landscape painters. “David, that’s nice and all, but it’s kind of destroyed the essence of the song, don’t you think?” Gabrels recalled saying (as per Paul Trynka’s biography). An irritated Bowie told Gabrels to get lost, but he eventually relented and restored the original lyric.

hfl

Bowie’s change of costume on “Hearts” and Outside could come off as juvenile and desperate. Studied alienation, pretentious narration, gasped and muttered vocals, a video hinting at Se7en-esque ritualized torture: to some critics, it seemed like a man chasing a train while trying to catch his breath. But a YouTube comment on the “Hearts” video struck me. It was written by someone who was 15 when “Hearts” came out, who said that “Hearts” was the first Bowie song he ever heard, and it freaked him out.

It’s remarkable that a 48-year-old rock musician, who’d been making records since A Hard Day’s Night came out, could still manage to unnerve teenagers, making himself shabby and weird again. What’s more, there was a hard commitment to the present in Bowie’s latest revision, which he would make clear in his album’s title song: It’s happening Now. Not. Tomorrow. It happens Today.  On Letterman, a slight unease hung in the air after the Bowie performance, when Letterman was gassing on to Paul Shaffer and Doc Severinsen—it’s likely someone during the commercial break cracked, “what the hell was that all about?” But Bowie wasn’t singing for them; he just made them seem irredeemably old and square. Tell the others, as he’d murmured as the song careered to a close, tell the others.

The Outside era, kicked off by “Hearts,” was a last throw of the dice for Bowie, where he tried to become a bothersome cult figure again. Sure, it was calculated: so was Young Americans, and Low, for that matter. And it worked, for some. There’s a little-acknowledged generational gap in Bowie fandom, between those who grew up with him in the “classic” Seventies and early Eighties, and those who first knew him with Outside. For the latter, this cadaverous aging creep, muttering about Ramona and blood and filthy things, was their Ziggy Stardust.

By decade’s end, after two albums and tours, Bowie would fall back, exhausted, into the sway of the past. But in the mid-Nineties, he willed himself to be shameless and there was something marvelously crackpot about it. He wouldn’t get hit singles anymore, but he also was a presence again; an irritant, an embarrassment. He became vaguely disreputable. As Greil Marcus once wrote of Randy Newman: he was back at the margin, scheming. It suited him.

Recorded ca. March 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, with overdubs at Mountain throughout late 1994, and the Hit Factory, NYC, ca. January-February 1995 (where Armstrong recorded his guitar overdubs). Released on 11 September 1995 (RCA/BMG 74321 30703 2), in a mind-numbing array of versions and mixes (see the Illustrated DB entry for details); the most interesting of the latter was the Reznor-affiliated “Alt Mix.” The US digipak single (Virgin 7432 8 38518 2 9), which did hit #20 on the Modern Rock charts, had “Nothing to Be Desired” as a bonus track, where the UK/Europe/Australia singles had “I Am With Name.” Of course, “Hearts” was used to ominously score the end credits of David Fincher’s Se7en.

Performed regularly from 1995 to 1997. A recording from the Phoenix Festival, 18 July 1996, was included on liveandwell.com, a CD issued exclusively for BowieNet members in 2000, as well as the French-only Limited Edition Track 3 Sampler, while a version from Bowie’s 50th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden was included on a CD that GQ magazine distributed in its November 1997 issue: Earthling in the City. The closing show of the “Earthling” tour, Buenos Aires on 7 November 1997, was the last time that Bowie ever played the song live.

* Mark Romanek’s video for “Closer,” with its bondage gear, Francis Bacon-inspired slabs of beef, crucified monkeys, decapitated pig’s head, nude human mannequins and general filthiness, was an obvious inspiration for Bayer and Bowie’s video for “Hearts.” (It was a tribute to a tribute, as the heart of “Closer” is a bass drum sample from Bowie and Iggy Pop’s “Nightclubbing.”)

** Bryony, Josey, Ruby and Lola Edwards, who also sang on “I Am With Name.” (I’m assuming they’re related, unless it was a Ramones-type of thing.) To my knowledge, Outside is the only record on which they’ve been credited.

Top: pride goeth before a fall, Se7en (Fincher, 1995); filthy lessons.


Jump They Say

November 2, 2012

Jump They Say.
Jump They Say (video).
Jump They Say (Arsenio Hall Show, 1993).
Jump They Say (Rock Mix).
Jump They Say (Leftfield Remix)
Jump They Say (Dub Oddity).
Jump They Say (Brothers in Rhythm 12″ mix).
Jump They Say (Club Hart Earth mix).
Jump They Say (live, 1995).
Jump They Say (live, 1996).

On the morning of 16 January 1985, during a snowstorm that had left the Cane Hill Hospital in Coulsdon understaffed, a patient left the asylum grounds. He went across the road, into the Coulsdon South train station, and walked to the end of the platform. When the express train, which had run late, appeared in the distance, he jumped down onto the track. He lay his head upon the rail and turned his face away from the train, which killed him a few seconds later. He was Terry Burns, David Bowie’s half-brother.

As with many suicides, the final act wasn’t a surprise. Burns had laid on the same track the month before but had pulled away from the rail at the last minute. He had thrown himself out of a window in Cane Hill in 1982. These are just the documented attempts.

Most of us are fortunate in that our family tragedies don’t become the sport of tabloids. The Sun attacked Bowie for his alleged mistreatment of Burns, calling him out for ignoring his brother and for not attending the funeral (which he didn’t attend because he thought he would make it a press circus). The papers gave a platform to an aggrieved aunt to lambaste him. The following year Peter and Leni Gillman’s biography, Alias David Bowie, was published, with the aunt as one of its key sources and which offered as a central premise that the Bowie family was riddled with insanity and that Bowie’s tortured relationship with his mentally ill half-brother, and his fear of going mad, inspired many of his songs. Except for a note included with the flowers he sent to Burns’ funeral (paraphrasing a line from Blade Runner), Bowie kept silent.

Certainly Terry Burns had been essential to Bowie’s development; there’s little question as to that. Burns, Bowie’s elder by ten years, had helped turn David Jones into “David Bowie,” having introduced his younger half-brother to everything from Tibetan Buddhism to jazz. And the period in which Bowie and Burns had last had regular contact, the Haddon Hall days of 1970-1971 (when Burns would sometimes stay with the Bowies on weekends) coincided with Bowie’s quantum leap in songwriting—he would introduce himself to guests as “Terry’s brother” and then go off to write “Quicksand” and “Life on Mars?”

There was Cane Hill on the cover of The Man Who Sold The World, and there were the songs: “All the Madmen,” “After All,” “Five Years,“* “The Man Who Sold the World,“The Bewlay Brothers.” Songs about doubles and brothers and shadows, about lost children, madness and isolation. But songs about “Terry” the imago, not Terry the troubled man who would take his own life at age 47. Bowie had made a doppelganger of Terry, had used it for his own ends, as a vessel into which he could channel his fears, a muse he could eventually discard. In 1993, promoting his new album, Bowie said he’d really never known his half-brother, who in his youth would disappear for years and then turn up at the house in Bromley seemingly just to upset his mother. “I think I unconsciously exaggerated his importance. I invented this hero-worship to discharge my guilt and failure, and to set myself free from my own hang-ups.

“Jump They Say,” released eight years after Burns’ death, was “semi-based on my impression of my stepbrother,” Bowie told the NME. But “Jump” was no eulogy (how could it have been, as Bowie had already written “Bewlay Brothers”?), and there was little sentimental or maudlin about it. It was a somber, desolate song, built on a steady mid-tempo rhythm track and which only erupted into brief spasms of cold anger—even the usually buoyant Lester Bowie sounds aggrieved in his solo. Oddly enough, it was a hit: Bowie’s last-ever UK Top 10 single.

The starting point for “Jump” may have been Bowie toying with his old piece “What in the World” with which “Jump” shares a similar shifting two-chord structure, rhythmic base and even lyrical signifiers: a girl with grey eyes in “World” gives birth to the shaking man with a nation in his eyes in “Jump.”

And there’s a taste of Low‘s spiritual deadness in “Jump.” It’s even a far colder song than “What in the World,” which lies on the manic end of Low‘s emotional spectrum. “Jump” feels like it’s going nowhere, a song locked in a box, from the constant two-chord (C/B-flat) shift underlying the verses and bridges** to the looped percussion tracks (a left-mixed synthesized hi-hat and right-mixed tambourine 16ths, which play almost entirely through the track—the hi-hat drops out during Lester Bowie’s solo, while the tambourine gets down-mixed) to the bassline, which until the chorus just alternates between holding on the root note (the C bars) and playing a livelier two-note pattern (the Bb bars).

Bowie’s vocal, which keeps to the range of a fifth except for the soaring bridge, is also locked in this stasis, with Bowie arranging phrases so that “he has” falls at the same place, rhythmically, in each line (Bowie eventually alters this pattern—while he at first does the same with “they say,” using that line to end phrases in the first verse, he starts dragging it across bars in the second verse: “they/say he has/no fear they…“). This strict rhythmic pattern fits the coldness of the lyric, in which the “Terry” figure is observed as though by a scientist in a lab—“Terry” has no inner life, he’s just made up of a series of observation reports. Look at him climb! the researcher notes, with the slightest trace of life in his voice, watching as the man hauls himself up a spire like some sad parody of King Kong. And what’s the chorus but a crowd calling for him to jump? The researcher closes the file. I’d say he should watch his arse, he mutters, as he leaves the room and turns off the light.

Breaking through the song’s permafrost are a few brief interruptions—distorted, “underwater”-sounding trumpets that crop up in the intro and get a brief moment to solo; Lester’s wild spray of notes (in the Outside tour, this section was battled over by Reeves Gabrels and Mike Garson); Bowie’s pained-sounding saxophone responses to the crowd calling “jump!,” a melody that Bowie finally put to words in the last chorus. It’s a message of hope and faith (“got to BELIEVE somebody!“) though Bowie and his backing singers only emphasize the last syllable (“LEAVE!”)

While the single went nowhere in America, “Jump” was a hit in the UK, its performance likely boosted by a strong promotional push, the hype around it being Bowie’s first “real” new single in half a decade and by its video, directed by Mark Romanek. The latter was Bowie’s best effort since “Ashes to Ashes,” with which it shared a sense of rummaging through discarded Bowie selves: in “Jump” the stewardesses from Kubrick’s 2001 share the stage with the fallen man of Lodger and the tortured Thomas Jerome Newton of Man Who Fell to Earth.

As for the man who walked into the Coulsdon South station that morning? No one knows him; no one will ever be privy to was in his mind, on that or on any other morning. He remains a secret to us, likely even to his brother. “Jump” doesn’t bring us any closer to him, it answers nothing, it explains nothing, it mourns him only in passing, indirectly, as if in a scientific paper’s abstract; the song’s falling man easily could have been someone Bowie had just read about in a newspaper. “Jump” lets us overhear a man talk to his brother’s shadow, which had always been just as much a reflection of himself.

Recorded ca. summer/fall 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and/or Power Station, NYC. Released as a single (Arista 74321 139424, c/w “Pallas Athena,” #9 UK) in March 1993. Performed live in 1995-1996, one of two songs from BTWN that Bowie revived. Again, there were a heap of remixes (see here for the lot). The UK 12″ single included the Hard Hands, Leftfield and Dub Oddity mixes (the latter, also by Leftfield, an instrumental that’s basically a new song, is on the 2-CD BTWN reissue); the Rock Mix (orig. on the Savage CD single, “Rock Mix” = more banal guitar) and the Brothers in Rhythm 12″ mix are also on that reissue. “Jump” was also released in 1994 as a poorly-received CD-ROM in which users could remix BTWN songs, re-edit the “Jump” video and listen to Bowie gas on.

* “I thought of my brother and wrote “Five Years,” Bowie, Rolling Stone interview, 1976.

** Much of the song alternates between B-flat and C major, the chords shifting every other bar. While the ear keeps trying to guess which way the song will go, the pattern seems that it’s never going to break, so there’s a suspension of movement, fitting the uncertainty of the track. Finally, the chorus progression (Dm7-F-Gm7-C5) offers a vague resolution, establishing the song in C Mixolydian mode. (Though you could make a case that the song’s been in F major the whole time, with the dueling Bb and C chords the IV and V chords of F. Or that it’s in standard C major, with Bowie borrowing Bb from the key of F major (as a substitute IV chord—it’s the sort of thing John Lennon loved to do), and portending a key change to F that never happens.)

Epilogue: There was another Bowie half-sibling, one who is often forgotten: his half-sister Annette, born in 1943 (she was his father Haywood’s daughter). Her story ends far happier. As Bowie wrote in the introduction to his wife’s autobiography: “When I was seven or thereabouts, my half-sister, Annette, left England for good. She had fallen in love with an Egyptian and was to travel to his village to marry him. She would write. My father may have received news but if so those letters were not shared. I never heard another thing from or about her…[when] Annette had arrived in Egypt, she had converted to Islam, which had meant undergoing a name change. Being the first Western Christian girl to ever visit let alone live in her husband’s village, the most appropriate name for her was obvious.

If you care to listen I will tell you that I, David Robert Jones, a Protestant Caucasian boy from South London in jolly old England, have a wife and a sister, both called Iman.”

Top: Messrs. Blonde, White and Pink, Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino, 1992; “Jump” single; still from the “Jump” video, Romanek, 1993.


Never Let Me Down

April 9, 2012

Never Let Me Down.
Never Let Me Down (video).
Never Let Me Down (Top of the Pops (US), 1987).
Never Let Me Down (dub/”a capella” mix).
Never Let Me Down (live, 1987).

Written and recorded in little over a day during the mixing sessions for Never Let Me Down, the last-minute title song* was spontaneous where much of the album was labored and was lyrically and emotionally blunt by Bowie’s standards, which may have helped “Never” be the last Bowie single to chart higher in America than in the UK. (It’s also Bowie’s last US Top 40 single.)

Bowie said in contemporary interviews that his vocal was meant as a tribute to John Lennon, and the track’s harmonica solo and the whistling in its coda also both work as Lennon shorthand. But of which Lennon? Lennon’s son, Julian, had a uptempo hit in 1985, “Too Late For Goodbyes,” which shares with “Never” a vocal line that darts up to falsetto, a mild, bouncing rhythm sparked with bass flourishes, and a harmonica solo in place of a verse.

While displaced as Lennon’s heir presumptive once Lennon and Yoko Ono had had a son of their own, Julian Lennon suddenly emerged in late 1984 with a debut record on Atlantic. Its timing was perfect (its singles seemed like follow-ups to the last, posthumous John Lennon hit, “Nobody Told Me”) and it had a pedigree: recorded at Muscle Shoals Studios, produced by Phil Ramone, with a cast of top session players including Michael Brecker and Toots Thielemans (who played harmonica on “Goodbyes”). Its videos were directed by Sam Peckinpah in his dotage. The full press worked: Valotte went platinum and produced two Top 10 hits. But Julian’s fame was only of a moment. His next three records sold weakly. By 1990 his career, barely begun, seemed that of a fading songwriter twice his age.

Much of the hullabaloo around “Valotte” at the time was that it seemed like a generic public conception of a “John Lennon song,” that Julian sounded like Mind Games-era Lennon and that in the video he looked like a softened, newly-hatched version of his father. As Ben Greenman wrote recently, Julian ably served as a “psychic replacement” for his father, just when the public had begun to accept John was gone.

So if Bowie was slightly referencing Julian, some of it was a mercenary’s sense of knowing where the action was: Julian was getting hits in ’85-’86, and Bowie had intended “Never” to be the lead-off single. But it’s also nice to imagine that the old faker Bowie appreciated the odd mimicry that Julian had pulled off, and that he was taken by the idea that the post-Sixties generation had demanded their own toy edition of John Lennon—a Lennon who was fresh, young and single again, but also neutered: no weird political stunts, no screaming about his mother, no feminist broadsides, no public embarrassments. (A letter to Rolling Stone at the time came from a Boomer mother who lovingly recounted what her teenage daughter had told her: “Mom, you had John Lennon and now we have Julian.” (“Good luck kid, I thought,” Greil Marcus spat in response. “What kind of life can you make out of these pathetic little Family Favorites tunes about nothing? It made me sick to read that letter, not because Julian Lennon is corrupt, fake or dishonest, but because he probably worthy, sincere and true…when Julian sings badly, emptily, which is all he does, you hear success.“)

On the surface, “Never Let Me Down” is transparent enough: a tribute to John Lennon musically, a tribute to Coco Schwab** lyrically. But if the Lennon being homaged is an echo of the “real” Lennon, can the lyric be read so directly either? The singer traffics in a shared nostalgia (with the subject of his song, as well as his audience) as a means to sell his pleas, and the song seems sentimental because it’s in part playing with our memories of sentimental songs. So while the last verse finds the singer pledging that it’s his turn to return the favors, there’s a sadness more than a reassurance in his voice (it doesn’t help that Bowie sings “never let me down” as a run of ascending stepwise notes until he falls on “down,” and so not quite selling the commitment). While it would be foolish to dismiss the apparent heartfelt sentiments that inspired the song, “Never” is also guarded and contradictory: that is, classic Bowie.

“Never Let Me Down” began as a discarded drum track from the album’s earlier Montreux sessions. Bowie was mulling writing a new song during its mixing at the Power Station (given some of the material he was mixing, that’s not surprising), so while Bob Clearmountain mixed “Zeroes,” Bowie and David Richards found another open studio and soon built up a track, with Bowie doing much of the synth work, and quickly writing and cutting a vocal. The three-verse lyric moves from distant recollection (in the first verse the singer refers to “her” and “she” helping him out) to close by making of direct pledge of his own (the last verse has him singing to “you”). It’s sung and phrased well: in the pre-chorus a bobbing run of notes buoy “dance a little dance,” which also is the start of a long fall down an octave, though Bowie’s attempts at a Lennon (pater or fils) falsetto sound strained at times.

In the evening Bowie and Richards brought in Crusher Bennett for percussion and Carlos Alomar for guitar dubs, including some of his trademark percussive fills in the choruses. And fitting for Bowie’s “thanks for the memories” song, “Never Let Me Down” became the last Bowie/Alomar co-composition. When Alomar arrived, Bowie asked him to spice up what he later called a “funereal” chord progression, with Alomar ransacking a discarded piece of his own, “I’m Tired.” It’s hard to determine who wrote what, though if I were to guess, the F major ninths, sevenths and sixths in the intro and pre-chorus (which culminate in a pounded-home G seventh chord) feels like a guitarist’s doing, while the B-flat in the chorus that pulls the song out of C major towards a vague but inconclusive F major seems a typical Bowie move.

Alomar’s work with Bowie didn’t end here: he was a major part of the Glass Spider tour, perhaps too major, as Bowie’s unhappiness with that tour led him to cut ties with nearly everyone involved with it. Alomar turned up next (after once again being snubbed for a Nile Rodgers-produced Bowie record) in 1995, where he played a minor role on Outside and its subsequent tour, apparently to his frustration. Thankfully, like Tony Visconti, he and Bowie seemed to have made up by the end of the century, with Alomar’s contributions to both Heathen and Reality adding to those albums’ feel of recapitulation and finality.

But in the future, Alomar would always be a sideman, a second-tier player; he would no longer be a translator or a voice for Bowie to sing in. “Never Let Me Down” inadvertently became a document of Bowie and Alomar parting company, and so the knowledge of this can’t help but add to the sense that Bowie’s eternal pledges of the last verse won’t come true. The song’s a bittersweet thank-you, a dismissal in a kiss.

Recorded ca. September-November 1986, mainly at the Power Station, NYC. On the album that it titled and also released in July 1987 as a single (EA 239 c/w “’87 and Cry,” UK #34, #27 US). The video, with its dance marathon setting, was directed by Jean-Baptiste Modino and was by far the best of the lot from Never Let Me Down. Performed live during the Glass Spider tour.

*A Bowie tradition by this point (see “The Man Who Sold the World”).

** Schwab was of course Bowie’s longtime assistant, who had helped take care of his son, had paid the bills, had arranged transportation and housing and had generally served as the representative of sanity in an often insane life.

Top: Ted Barron, “Jesus Saves, New York, 1986.”


Shake It

October 28, 2011

Shake It.
Shake It (12″ mix).

The Man Who Sold the World and Let’s Dance seem to have been recorded on different planets, but their creations were similar, with Bowie in a passive role. While Bowie has denied that Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson did most of the work on MWSTW, he’s admitted to ceding much of Let’s Dance to Nile Rodgers. Bowie didn’t play a single note on the record (“this was a singer’s album,” he said at the time) and was often in the Power Station lounge while Rodgers worked up the backing tracks.

So “Shake It,” far more than the rest of Let’s Dance, seems like the product of an out-to-lunch composer whose producer was gamely trying to guess what he wanted. It’s a troubling precedent of Bowie’s worst moments in Eighties: the genial indifference to quality, the sense of broadly playing to a generic public of his imagination. A filler track that closes out Let’s Dance, “Shake It”‘s not knowing enough to be a parody, not compelling enough to be a good dance song.

With its lyric occasionally attempting a cool ennui (“talking to a faceless girl,” “you’re better than money“), “Shake It” seems like a cheerful vandalism of a half-remembered Sixties, with the spiritualism of an earlier era reduced to catch phrases and pick-up lines; it’s a song for former hippies dancing awkwardly at some corporate function. So Bowie’s lyric calls back to the Beach Boys’ “‘Til I Die” (the Brian Wilson tributes would only get worse), “Twist and Shout” again and even John Lennon’s “Mind Games.” (The dreadful “I could take you to heaven/I could spin you to hell/But I’ll take you to New York/it’s the place that I know well” is pure Bowie, though.)

Rodgers does what he can with a dull composition (the six-bar bridge starts out promisingly, with Bowie sinking into his lower register, but it’s soon dispatched with another “shake it!”) and the track’s pleasant enough. Sure, the twirpy synthesizer ostinato is irritating and the backing singers should be shot, but Carmine Rojas’ bass offers a solid groove in compensation (he’s often starting each bar with an octave drop), while Rodgers’ two-bar rhythm guitar fills and Sammy Figueroa’s percussion add some welcome distractions. Brightly mixed and fairly shameless, “Shake It” shines like plastic.

Recorded ca. 1-20 December 1982, Power Station, NYC. An extended mix was issued as the B-side of the “China Girl” 12″ single in May 1983.

Top: Andrew McDonald, “Drunk Man with Cast and Cigarette,” Perth, Australia, 1983.