Interview transcript, 5/9/2005: OSTERMAN, D., RHINEBECK, NY.
I missed the ’76 tour but I was there at the Garden in August ’77. You’ve heard the show, right? Yeah, right? My kid got the boxed set a while back. I didn’t want to hear it. I heard it once, you know? All you need. All I need, at least.. [inaudible] well, look, the show took forever to get going. Like two hours of lights dimming and going back up, to all these big moaning groans from the crowd, and this fucked-up metal-shredding noise kept playing on the PA, setting everyone on edge. The mood, you can expect, was just…off. Everyone in my group, five of us, was seriously high—we had some ludes and some pot that was laced with who knows what. Not just us. The whole crowd was high on something, or were just tensed for something.
Finally the lights went down for good and Bowie came out. He was pin-thin and wore all black—black suit coat, black rosette in his lapel, black shoes. Black hat? Maybe. Black cane, yes. Leaned on it a lot. Contrast to his face and hands, which were just…I’ve never seen skin shine like that. Like moon-skin. And he was still living in LA then, right? I guess he never went outside [laughs].
He started, I remember, with “Five Years,” and it was just the slowest, most dragging version that you could imagine—was like a year between the drum hits. And he just stood there, just propped against the mike stand, and after a long while he started singing, low, real ghostly. [sings] “Pushing through the market square…” You know how it goes. Then he seemed to kinda wake up and the band really kicked in. He had, maybe, three guitarists? A guy on a huge keyboard too. Drummer had a gong.
There was a bunch of disco stuff, really savage-sounding stuff. Couldn’t really dance to it: too fast. “Fame,” “Stay,” “Calling Sister Midnight,” “Gimme Sweet Head.” He would sing some, then let his band jam for like 10 minutes, then he’d pick up again. While they played he looked out at the crowd, like he was scanning for someone he knew. He did some new stuff, too, maybe ones he never recorded, like this one song I just remember he was yelling “bring me the disco king!” Over and over again. That was most of the song. His hands were up in the air, like someone had a gun on him. Then he did this lunge, this weird pivot, at the mike and said something like, “here’s a new one for you New Yorkers, it’s called “Blackout!””
And you remember the blackout had happened just the month before and everyone in that room was probably there in the city during it and..I mean, parts of the city were probably still on fire then! And Bowie sent like an electric current through the place. Have you ever been on a boat during a storm? The crowd was listing, listing, like, say the right side of the Garden kind of convulsed and then it sort of shivered across until the left side got all worked up. Screams, really big shrieks, you know. This guy the row up from us started shaking, having a fit. Making this awful noise, I still remember, this little hut-hut-hut-hut-hut sound. Bowie was really caught up in the song, just wailing at it, but then he’d crouch, almost squat down on stage, like he was like holding off punches. I couldn’t breathe all of a sudden and my friend Cindy was crying, so when the strobe lights started, I figured we just had to get out of there. Nearly got in two fights just getting into the walkway.
We got out on Eighth Ave., probably by the time of “Station to Station,” when that kid got stabbed, right? I was happy to be out. Though I loved Bowie, you know? Really. I was such a fan. But that wasn’t a good place. And what happened to him in ’78—well, you can’t be surprised, really, though, can you?
Excerpt from Musician, May 1990, “The London Gang’s All Here.”
Musician: So everyone in the group was in London with you? In the ’60s?
Bowie: Yes, although we didn’t all work together then, except for John [Hutchinson] and I. Andy [Mackay] wasn’t quite there—he was still at university until 1969 or 1970, I believe. But he knew the scene, went to a lot of the shows, same as I did. Bill [Legend] of course was Marc’s drummer, on all the great T. Rex singles. Oh and yes, Herbie [Flowers] was on one of my records and one of Lou’s, and he even produced a single that no one ever remembers, called “Holy Holy.”
M: And the band’s name is a tribute to one of your other old singles? That no one remembers?
B: [Laughs]. It wasn’t even on the radar enough to be forgotten! But I always thought it my first proper recording, my first proper song, and it meant a great deal to me. Though we weren’t quite proper London Boys! I was in Beckenham until 1971 or 1972. Hutch was in Canada.
M: Have you gotten flak for going down this nostalgic route? You’re going to be playing a lot of old songs, and you haven’t made any new records since Never Let Me Down.
B: Which has few supporters, I’ve found. No, I wouldn’t call us a nostalgia act at all. There’s a Buzzcocks song that goes, “nostalgia for an age yet to come.” Well this is a nostalgia for a past that never was. I think we bring something new to the table. Though of course we’ve all been on the scene for quite a while. But never quite in this combination.
M: And this is the last time you’re singing your old songs? Are you recording new ones?
B: That’s the plan, yes. Once we’re back from South America later this year, we’re going to see what happens in the studio. One possible title is Bring Me the Disco King [laughs]. You can just see the cover image, right? Henry V, ordering some flamboyant conquered foe to be brought to him in irons.
“Bring Me the Disco King” first went public in a mix (for the soundtrack of Underworld) in which the Bowie track’s sole elements—Mike Garson’s piano, Matt Chamberlain’s drum loop and, for a good chunk of the song, Bowie’s vocal—were erased and replaced by Nine Inch Nails guitarist Danny Lohner. In this alternate world, Lisa Germano plays piano, John Frusciante’s on lead guitar and Josh Freese drums. And Maynard James Keenan sings some of it.
You may wish to listen to the remix first, because it feels like the most “complete” version of the song, making Bowie’s track sound like a polished, slightly avant-garde demo. The Lohner remix builds steadily, from Frusciante’s looped, distorted Fender in the intro to the string settings and Keenan taking over the refrains.
This wouldn’t be the first time that a “sequel” to a Bowie song supplants the original recording: I’ve long argued the recut/overdubbed version of “Rebel Rebel,” completed in New York months after the Diamond Dogs version, is the superior recording. You could say the definitive “Station to Station” is the (likely doctored) Philadelphia live recording on Stage (used in Christiane F.), and that some of the Reality songs hit harder in their tour versions.
Consider if the remix was the only version of the song, that the Bowie/Garson take was as “lost” today as the Nineties versions of “Disco King” are (see below). That Bowie’s grand finale existed only as a mid-sequence mood piece on a Kate Beckinsale vampire movie soundtrack.
Excerpt from Simon King, The Royal Scam: A Misspent Youth In the Advertising World (Clearwater: 1995):
Bill said DJ wanted me in his office “yesterday.” First, a trip to the men’s room (thankfully, I still had some coke from the night before). I was bracing for the worst. So, it seemed, was Bill. “King, bring me the disk before you go upstairs,” he said while I was putting on my jacket and pinching some life into my face.
I’d never ever spoken to DJ before, only seen him from across the floor. He worked in three different offices—London, here in NYC and Tokyo—but he was more like some global embodiment of Jones & Bond, his official residence a first-class airplane seat. DJ was a figure of abstract terror for our office. He’d show up on a Friday afternoon and within an hour three people would be packing their desks and you might be reassigned to a new account that had a project due on Monday morning at 8 AM.
His secretary, who looked like a Modigliani come to life, waved me through. DJ was at his desk, which was immaculate and had nothing resembling work on it. He asked me to sit. It’s hard to describe how incredibly striking-looking he was. He was around 40 but looked at least a decade younger. No visible work done, just a sense that life hadn’t managed to touch him yet. He was steeped in charisma. This was a guy who’d started in the business in ’63, when he was barely out of high school, and in two years he was all but running the show at Collett Dickenson Pearce. His own shop by ’68. He could have been anything—an actor, a prime minister. (Rumor was he cut a few Beatles-type singles back when, but no one at J&B has turned up anything).
I tried to meet his gaze. He had an irregular right pupil, permanently dilated, so naturally you were drawn to it but you also kept trying to not stare at it. He, of course, was entirely aware of this situation and used it as a power play, making whoever was across the desk look at anything else (there was a Japanese-looking guitar on the wall, I noticed).
“Simon,” he began. “You consider advertising to be beneath your substantive talents. Is that a fair assessment?”
I think I flushed. Here it comes. “You spend your nights in the East Village and give off that you’re a frustrated, sadly corrupted artist. I quite empathize, but you must realize this is a rather tedious existence.” He took a Gauloise from his pocket and lit it with a bone-handle lighter produced seemingly out of thin air. “Substantive art is not born from such a cliche.”
“I was very much in your shoes once. But I came to realize that advertising has a much greater purchase on the imagination than any painting. What’s the promise of art? What’s its potential? Immortality? Fame? Power? If you want to colonize dreams, if you want to create a desire—to make someone need something they never knew they needed—if you’d like to stage how people regard reality itself, our field offers some promise.”
He drew out another cigarette and pushed it towards me across his desk. “A Tibetan lama once said there are two forms of art—black magic to turn people’s heads and “white” reality art. We’ve well enough of the latter. Simon, would you care to work on some black magic with me? It should prove interesting, at least.”
Review: “Expatriates in Berlin: 1980-2000″ (James Cohan Gallery, until May 23).
The exhibit includes six works by David Bowie, the former rock performer from the 1970s best known for his gender-fluid chameleon figures on stage. Bowie has worked as a painter and an avant-garde filmmaker since his retirement, though his technique has shown little signs of improvement and his subject matter remains obscure and, in its way, provincial.
Of the pictures (three in oil, one black pencil, two mixed-media), the most promising was “(Bring Me) The Disco King and His Wives,” a 6′ x 12′ abstract work with some furious brushwork and a good sense of scale. Unfortunately even this pales to the work of other Berlin-based artists featured, especially the Archine sisters. One wonders why Bowie has abandoned a field in which he was so capable to devote his time to one in which he’ll always be a second-rater.
“Bring Me the Disco King” dated to the early Nineties, Bowie said. He wrote the song for the Black Tie White Noise sessions in 1992. “I initially did a version of it which played to the title, alarmingly…I wanted it to sound cheesy and kitschy, and be a kind of real uptempo, disco-y kind of slam at late Seventies disco. And the trouble is, it sounded cheesy and kitschy, ha ha! It just didn’t work. It didn’t have any weight to it.” Attempting it again during the Earthling sessions (“we did it in a sort of muscular way, like the band was at that particular time“), he found the track still lacking.
Of course, there are no circulating demos or outtakes of these early versions of “Disco King,” so there’s no way to trace the song’s evolution. And it’s tempting to wonder whether there were any early versions. After all, Bowie likes to lie to us, so perhaps he invented a tangled family history for his big album-closer, which was one of the longest tracks he ever recorded and which, for a decade, was his Last Word on Record (though it wasn’t, quite).
Let’s take Bowie at his word. “Disco King” doesn’t seem originally intended for piano, in the way that, say, “Lady Grinning Soul” or “Oh! You Pretty Things” were. It’s possible the song began as a simple guitar piece in E minor (with a capoed first fret to move the song, vocally, to F minor), and chord-wise it’s fairly standard (if it was written on guitar down a half-step, the verse chords would be Em/D/B/Em or C/Em/D/C).
But the chords on the Reality track were Garson’s choices. Bowie played the latter his vocal over the drum loop and told Garson to “show me the chords,” using Bowie’s top melody as a guide. So Garson’s intro and outro loops F minor, A# and G# (calling back to “Aladdin Sane,” where Garson soloed over the latter two (flattened) chords), and he’ll swap chords for climactic effect—shifting “bring me the disco king” to F minor after Bowie initially sings it over C# and D#, or reversing the latter two chords for the last extended refrain (“soon there’ll be nothing left of me”). (Thanks to regular commenter “CrayontoCrayon” for his help.)
Giving the song a lost, troubled ancestry adds more dimensions, echoes—the ear wonders how “Disco King” could have worked with a disco or techno beat (“I had those drums on it, the works, you know, it’s a 120-beats-a-minute,” Bowie said), how Bowie’s phrasing would have changed (imagine the “don’t let me know we’re invisible” sung varisped at double the tempo).
It fits how Bowie’s final “Disco King” was partially assembled out of lost songs—its “dance dance dance/through the fire” nearly the same melody as Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie,” its drum track cut by Matt Chamberlain during the Heathen sessions in 2001 (“playing to a completely different song,” Tony Visconti said. “We just recorded ‘Disco King’ over the loops that I’d made of his performance”). Or how the notes of Garson’s piano are essentially samples, as he played his lines on Bowie’s Yamaha digital piano in New York.
The Goblin King was driven out of his kingdom by a palace revolt. Now this wasn’t much of a revolt, as revolts go, more a minor insurrection of a few disgruntled goblins and a set of confused bureaucrats. It could have been crushed with some choice spells and head-whackings. But the King was weary of his throne and he saw a choice opportunity to escape.
He traveled in the cities of the Western Lights, where, in his sweeping cloak and shining boots, he cut a noticeable figure in the marketplaces and piazzas, and for a time he attended the monastery balls each evening, once winning a dancing contest against a Kermode bear. But there was a melancholy in his step and his demeanor, and he found the crowds oppressive, especially as it was growing near carnival time. So he went further westward, out to the few scattered settlements and ranch towns along the Peninsula. He took up residence in a two-story hotel that was perched on the thin end of a frozen lake.
One night he was at his usual table when a man came in. The latter was known to the proprietor, a woman of few words, who called him “El Mayor,” and he sat by the fire, not acknowledging his fellow guest. This was fine for the King, who had no appetite for conversation. Still, as the two saw each other on the succeeding evenings, they began talking, took their meals together and played checkers afterward. The proprietor played songs on guitar: “Out On the Lamplighter,” “Aubergine,” “Traiga La Disco.” “King me,” El Mayor said, ending a game with a hopscotching movement across the board. Later in the evening, he was walking up the staircase to his room when he saw the King descending.
“Whose story are we in?” El Mayor said.
“I couldn’t tell you, Tomás,” the King replied.
“But it’s a story nonetheless.”
“I suppose. Its length is its only virtue.”
“It’s not a very good story, then?”
“Are they ever?”
“Sometimes,” El Major considered. “I’m happy: hope you’re happy, too.”
“Not particularly,” the King said.
“Short Picks,” JazzWeb, 10 May 1998.
Label: King (Disco 1). “Bring Me The French Reserves.” Zurich free-jazz ensemble Malachi (rumored to include David Bowie among its ranks—its LPs never feature credits) offers two 30-minute free form jams featuring a distorted alto saxophone, vibraphone, car horns and arco bass. Recommended.
Garson’s piano solo on “Aladdin Sane” gave Duncan “Zowie” Jones nightmares when he was a child, Garson recently said. Likely not the only one. Garson’s solo on “Aladdin Sane” is one of a few endpoints in Bowie’s work, being Bowie’s most avant-garde (if outsourced) moment on record. If you were to constellate Bowie songs, the solo would place “Aladdin Sane” out along the edges.
So it’s fitting that Bowie chose Garson to be the harmonic support for “Bring Me the Disco King,” which at some point in the Reality sessions Bowie had pegged as an album closer. It’s very unlikely at the time that Bowie considered Reality as any sort of last work (he would mention a new album throughout the tour and into 2005). But given the weighty end-of-days imagery he’d been playing with since Hours, perhaps it seemed appropriate to have a grand summary piece, in the way a television show uncertain of being renewed will shoot a final episode that could double as a series-ender.
What a difference between the madcap Garson of “Aladdin Sane,” a man running a series of parlor tricks and throwing Cecil Taylor and Keith Tippett figures into a blender, and the more stately figure on “Disco King,” whose opening riff seems a slower, truncated version of the intro to Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” (possibly because Bowie’s first line sounds a bit like Donald Fagen’s: “while the music played, you worked by candlelight“).
Often keeping to his bass keys, Garson gives brief ascending or descending chord figures as hooks, laces Bowie’s verse lines with discreet note runs, provides chordal support just when Bowie expects it, on a dramatic pause or an emphasis, while also rhythmically playing off Chamberlain’s looped drum figure. His solos on “Aladdin Sane” had acted as if Bowie’s vocal melody was off in another dimension, whereas here Garson remains in gracious service to the song, never straying too far from its confines, worrying out the “disco king” melody in his closing solo. This is, as of this writing, Garson’s last performance on a Bowie record; there have been no finer last acts for Bowie sidemen.
Excerpt from Hollywood’s Greatest Disasters (Methuen: 1988).
By May 1980, The Cubists was $10 million over budget, only four complete scenes had been shot and Stoppard’s script (which Godard had never consulted) was still being revised. After having seen dailies, producer De Laurentiis called a temporary halt to the filming for a week, at the end of which he fired Godard (who had already left the set) and said he would recast the Braque and Léger roles, much to the consternation of De Niro, who had developed a good rapport with Depardieu during the shooting of 1900 and was upset the latter would no longer be playing Léger.
The replacement leads, however, were at first warmly received, particularly Bowie, who played well against De Niro. To the shock of nearly all concerned, the first two weeks of resumed filming went smoothly, with much of the Paris exteriors completed. The move to Cinecittà, however, proved disastrous. Walken fell ill with colitis, De Niro was acting increasingly erratic (at times speaking in a pidgin French no one could understand) and Brando had still yet to appear on the set. A stage hand fell to his death, the atelier set burned down in a mysterious fire (some suspected the desperate producer’s hand). There was, consecutively, a flood, a rat infestation, a bomb threat by a remnant of the Red Brigades, a supporting actor suddenly becoming mute, a second fire, a third fire, and the violent reappearance of Godard, who demanded he be restored to the director’s chair (by this point, the 2nd AD was doing much of the primary shooting).
Throughout it all, sources said, Bowie was unflappable, even when summoned to the set by De Laurentiis yelling “bring me the disco king.” His long years in live television, co-hosting revues with Petula Clark and Cher, had inured him to chaotic situations on set, and he entertained fellow actors with impromptu songs he played on guitar during the many breaks in filming. De Niro recalled hearing a charming one “about some kind of astronaut rock star” and said he wished Bowie would have made a “proper album, as he was never really given his due.” “Bowie was the only good thing about that misbegotten wreck,” Walken later said. “It should not have been his last movie.”
“Bring Me the Disco King” isn’t Bowie’s last song (anymore), but through its lengthy verses and lengthier refrains you can see Bowie begin to plot his own demise. Take the last refrain, with his ominous command to “close me in the dark/let me disappear,” then punning on a release from jail and being freed from the album release cycle, as he’d earlier punned on “balance” (as a way of life and a bank statement). His abstruse lines of half-remembered decadence: Hunger City seen off in the distance, fading nights in a lost, divided Berlin. Killing time in the Seventies: wasting one’s life in nightclubs, or being victorious over time (temporarily, of course).
You promised me that the ending would be clear, he begins, but this isn’t a promise David Bowie would ever make. The lines about opening the door may reference Brel’s “My Death,” an old Bowie obsession, but if there was a death here, it proved temporary. “Bring Me the Disco King” sets the stage for a world in which David Bowie is only a memory or a legend, a world that’s waiting to be born. He’ll be okay, most likely, but he doesn’t know about you.
Recorded: (drums) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (vocals, digital piano) ca. March-April 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Its first release was on 2 September 2003 as the “Loner Mix” (by Nine Inch Nails guitarist Danny Lohner), on the soundtrack to Underworld (Lakeshore LKS, 33781). Bowie’s version was released on 16 September 2003 on Reality.
Top: Jon Gosier, “Misfilter @ the Remote Lounge,” 2003. “