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

August 22, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Gunman

August 20, 2012

Gunman.

As Adrian Belew had salvaged “Pretty Pink Rose,” Bowie repaid him by writing a lyric and vocal melody for an instrumental track that Belew was ready to abandon. Rehearsing the Sound & Vision tour in New York, Bowie and Belew went to Right Track Recording one night in January 1990 to cut the vocals for “Pink Rose.” The work quickly dispatched, Bowie listened to a few backing tracks Belew was considering for Young Lions but which he said he didn’t know what to do with. One, an uptempo piece with a guitar hook and a driving tom-centered beat, intrigued Bowie, and he asked for it to be replayed a few times. Then Bowie sat down with a beer and a notepad. He wrote a lyric in under a half-hour and, with his typical economy, cut his vocal in a couple of takes.

The backing track, performed entirely by Belew, was built on a drum track with an up-tuned tom, on which Belew played steady eighth notes, and then added delay (at the end of the track, you can hear the delay taper off, Belew said). The bass is the same growling sample that Belew had used on “Pink Rose,” while for his rhythm guitars he used the Roland GR-50, a guitar synthesizer that, in Belew’s words, “had the wonderful capability of playing a different sound on each string. So I added a harmony note to each string but a different note from string to string. In this way I could make up very unusual chords and patterns for the rhythm guitars. For the soloing guitars…who knows?”

Bowie gave the track, “Gunman,” one of his most bizarre recorded vocal performances in over a decade. “I’m not sure what to do,” Bowie said in the booth before cutting his vocal. “If I should be American or English on this.” Belew, in the control room, replied: “I like your English—it’s one of your better speaking voices.” Bowie theatrically moaned “oh Gawd!” and ran through the first verse in an exaggerated RP: “gunman…my sort of stah…we’re bleeding for you.

On the final take, Bowie’s “English” voice doesn’t appear until his last verse: a sing-spoken set of lines that become what sounds like a vicious lampoon of Robert Smith’s singing voice (“your women are DOGS but they’re braver than youuuuu“). Bowie opened the song in a guttural, hoarse voice, sounding deliberately off-key at times, and first sang the title as though being strangled. Taking his vocal hook from Belew’s two-chord guitar phrases (“gun-man”), Bowie generally sang six- or eight-line verses over this hook while singing four-line “refrains” over the contrasting eight-bar sections with arpeggiated guitars. The pattern broke down by the last verse, which bleeds into the “refrain” section.

The lyric, on paper, had the subtlety of Bowie’s thudding protest songs on Tin Machine. But here it worked, Bowie giving his clunky lines piss and blood by the sheer abrasiveness of his performance. His verses are just repeated, stabbing, three-beat, two-note phrases that strain upward at their close. His voice, sounding toxic, builds to a double-tracked shrieked refrain, at first followed by Belew’s solo, then repeated beneath Bowie’s closing, straight-faced ad-libs in his “English speaking voice”: “you’re more solid than a rock…a rock of coh-cayne or crack…Or ayyce..or death…like a rock o’ death! Like a grayve stone!”

A wonderfully odd track that was tucked away as the closer of Belew’s Young Lions, “Gunman” served, in retrospect, to preview Bowie’s crackpot ambitions in the mid-Nineties.

Recorded at Royal Recorders in Lake Geneva, Wis., on 3 November 1989, with Bowie’s vocal cut at Right Track Recording, NYC, on 15 January 1990. Sadly never performed live.

Top: Didier Ruef, “Poland, Silesia, Kameniec,” 1991. “Sanatorium for children aged 7 to 15. A group of girls are inhaling water vapor with eucalyptus oil. Major polluted area due to heavy metals suspended in the air. Kameniec is a small town, distance 35 km from Katowice.”


Pretty Pink Rose

August 15, 2012

Pretty Pink Rose (instrumental mix).
Pretty Pink Rose.
Pretty Pink Rose (live, 1990.)

If Bowie’s work on Tin Machine II seems maddeningly uneven, with the likes of “Shopping for Girls” matched with dreck like “You Can’t Talk,” it was in part because making the record was a sideshow for him. At the same time, in the fall of 1989, Bowie was consumed with readying his past for show, planning an elaborate re-issue of his back catalog and a world tour that would serve as its epilogue.

In 1988, compact discs had outsold LPs for the first time1 and by late 1989 vinyl was all but kaput. But the first wave of catalog CDs, churned out simply to get albums into stores, were slipshod, tinny-sounding, with artwork which rivaled that of cassettes (cropped, blurred photos; often no lyric sheets). The first Beatles CDs, which at least standardized US-UK album sequences,2 were primitive if passable, but the majority of Sixties bands’ catalog CDs were dreadful: vastly inferior, sonically, to the LPs they were supplanting. These discs only sounded “good” because for many people the contrasting item was an old, scratched, finger-smudged LP.

Bowie’s catalog was scarcely available on CD. RCA had put out an initial run of discs that by 1987 had all but vanished, as the rights to the albums had reverted back to Bowie. Rather than dump another batch of cut-rate CDs into the market, Bowie envisioned a series of high-end reissues, for which he could charge a premium, rather than the reduced prices that catalog issues usually merited. Essentially, the plan was to market a record that many people already owned (say, Ziggy Stardust) as a new release. It was rock & roll entering its archival, collector’s edition phase, a gambit aided by a booming economy, a new shiny recording medium and a clever strategy like Bowie’s, which baited fans with the promise of, at long last, new old songs.

Bowie was inspired by Frank Zappa, who had used Rykodisc, an independent CD label based in Salem, Massachusetts, to issue his back catalog. Zappa had loaded the CDs with extras, and sometimes re-recorded old tracks (a path Bowie blessedly never followed). Bowie signed an agreement with Rykodisc in March 1989,3 allowing Ryko to selectively raid his vaults for potential extras (with Bowie retaining veto power). These outtakes, demos and live cuts, provisionally around 50 tracks, would be added to various reissues and as well as to a career-spanning boxed set that Ryko issued in September 1989 to kick off the series.

[A brief aside on Sound + Vision. I have a soft spot for it, as I received it for an Xmas present in ’89 and it served as a great entry into Bowieland. But it’s a frustrating compilation at times. Using the Stage version of “Station to Station” was inspired, but substituting “Helden” for “Heroes” was a bridge too far.]

The Sound + Vision plan was tripartite: unveil the boxed set; stagger-release the CDs (the last batch wouldn’t come out until 1992—above is the aluminum “Tech Unit” that Ryko issued as the official holding case for one’s complete Bowie reissues); go on a six-month tour that would be billed as the last time Bowie ever played the hits. For the latter, Bowie needed a lead guitarist who had stage presence, who was familiar with his back catalog and with whom he had a good camaraderie. At first, Bowie assumed he would use Reeves Gabrels.

Gabrels balked, in part because he thought doing the tour would’ve meant bad blood with the Sales brothers, who were definitely not invited. But Gabrels also instinctively knew that he was the wrong choice for the gig, as the audience for this tour wouldn’t tolerate any of his deconstructionist assaults on classic Bowie hits. So instead he recommended one of his inspirations: Adrian Belew.

Belew had last worked with Bowie on Lodger. He had spun through the Eighties: as a counterpart and possible replacement for David Byrne in the Talking Heads (during a low period for band morale, Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz asked Belew to consider taking over as lead singer/guitarist); playing “David Byrne” in a revived King Crimson; forming an indie band (the Bears); closing the decade with a solo record, Mr. Music Head, whose goofy father-daughter duet, “Oh Daddy,” was a modest hit.

Belew was sitting by a swimming pool with the band America (now there’s a story untold) when he got Bowie’s call. He was intrigued by the idea, and he and Bowie began mapping out plans for the tour, which songs to include, how to arrange them with a stripped-down band. But Belew also had a solo contract with Atlantic, and in late 1989 he was making Young Lions, the follow-up to Mr. Music Head. So becoming Bowie’s lead guitarist for much of 1990 would mean putting the promotion of his own album on hold. As a lure, Bowie offered to sing on and provide new songs for Belew’s album, which could be performed during his “greatest hits” concerts.

So Belew sent Bowie a few tracks he was working on. Bowie sent back a tape with a song that he had recorded as a studio demo in 1988, “Pretty Pink Rose.” This hailed from a session in Los Angeles produced by Bruce Fairbairn, and cut with Bryan Adams’ backing band (see “Heaven’s In Here”).4 Years later, Belew was unsparing as to what he thought of the demo:

David’s office sent a cassette. Excitedly I opened it and played it. “Oh gawd,” it was awful! Imagine how I felt. Here I was on the verge of touring for a year with David Bowie and thinking we might produce a duet of perhaps a “hit” song of David’s, only to be confronted with something which sounded lifeless, limp, and plodding. I didn’t know quite what to do.

So working alone at a studio in Wisconsin, Belew tried to salvage the song. First he jump-started the plodding rhythm track. Recalling an old Beatles trick in which Paul McCartney played what sounded like straight 4/4 while Ringo Starr played a shuffle (or vice versa), and so creating a “pulling” rhythmic sensation that felt like half-time, Belew used a sampled “growling” bass and played variations against it on a 1955 Ludwig drum set.

Then he tweaked with the song’s structure. He made a tongue-in-cheek grandiose intro out of a play on the chorus melody, a brooding quasi-classical synthesizer musing that’s suddenly upended by a wailing guitar. He replaced a keyboard ostinato that had run under the chorus vocal on Bowie’s demo with a double-tracked guitar line. For the verses, Belew found that the way Bowie’s vocal melody “sat” allowed for him to write a series of responses on guitar: this created an volleying dialogue between guitar and singer, an effect further heightened in the final mix when Bowie and Belew traded off vocals.

As for the guitar tracks, Belew said: I was using Stratocasters equipped with Kahler tremolos at the time. I discovered you could adjust the tip of the Kahler tremolo arm downward facing the strings and then play the strings using the tip itself. Like “tapping,” only using the tip of the tremolo arm instead of your right hand fingers. It was the perfect bit of “flash” I was looking for. And it just happened! I had never seen it done before (or since).”

The finished track shifted between 16-bar uptempo verses driven by propulsive rhythm guitar and moody choruses that sounded more like bridges and were well suited for a classic Bowie croon. It was punchy, full of hooks, a ready-made piece of guitar pop. Bowie, stunned that Belew had made a possible hit single out of a song that hadn’t been good enough for Tin Machine, wrote an inspired lyric in response.

Bowie and Belew cut their vocals in a raucous session in NYC in January 1990, just before Bowie unveiled the Sound + Vision tour. The original vocal intro, Bowie intoning “she had tits like melons…it was love in the rain,” was sadly discarded, but an uncorked joy remained in the final lyric, a gonzo kiss-off to the waning Cold War. She’s just been to Russia and they’re dying their faces, the song begins: capitalism gaudily triumphant at last, the funfair finally heading East, streaking across the broken borders. They’re dying over there, is the subsequent pun, which Bowie sings with a smirk. The video took the idea further: Bowie and Belew, two louche representatives of the West, cringe before and court Julie T. Wallace, cast as a dominatrix in traditional Russian garb.

And where Never Let Me Down and the Tin Machine records had their wearying share of heartbreaking, ball-breaking women, here Bowie made his obsession into a force of nature (Belew’s whinnying, goading guitar solos also seem like a parody of Gabrels at his most excessive; it’s a master mocking a pupil). She’s the poor man’s gold, she’s the anarchist crucible!, Bowie hollers. She upturns civilizations wherever she spins, tearing up Paris looking for Tom Paine, who’s slipped loose from the jails, heading for the Finland Station. For a moment around 1990, it seemed like the world could be reset, and the optimism of the time echoes in “Rose.” But in its second verse, Bowie growled out a premonition of what the next two decades really would hold: the left wing’s broken, the right’s insane.

“Pretty Pink Rose” is a brief taste of glam élan during Bowie’s bilious mid-life crisis. It’s also frustrating. Belew’s surgical repairs to the song showed that, in the hands of a musician with something at stake, Bowie’s sub-standard material could be restored to life. It makes one wonder how much of the banal music that Bowie released in the late Eighties had finer, if unborn incarnations. “Pretty Pink Rose” easily could have been a throwaway. Instead it was Bowie’s best single since “Absolute Beginners.”

Recorded at Royal Recorders in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, on 11 November 1989, with vocals cut at Right Track Recording in NYC on 15 January 1990 (info via Belew’s website, from which I also took the history of “Rose”‘s restoration). You can purchase the instrumental version directly from Belew here. Released in May 1990 as Atlantic A7904, c/w “Heartbeat” (only #89 UK, though it hit #2 on US “Modern Rock” charts). There’s an alternate mix released on the promo CD single: it’s about thirty seconds shorter, has less lead guitar and even has a different second verse (I’ve not heard it). The video, filmed in a day at an abandoned German railway station, was never officially released.

1: The market leader until 1993 was the cassette, mainly because it was cheaper and cars didn’t have CD players yet. The transition happened earlier in the UK: by 1990, CDs had a greater market share than cassettes.

2: It’s nice that for everyone under, say, 35, Revolver has always had “I’m Only Sleeping” on it, Rubber Soul has always had “If I Needed Someone,” and Help! is where you find “I’ve Just Seen a Face” and “Yesterday.”

3: This was only for the US. Bowie finally struck a UK licensing agreement with EMI in 1990.

4: It’s possible that the outtake “I Pray Ole” was either an early or alternate version of what became “Pretty Pink Rose.” The closing “take me to the heart, to the heart, to the heart” chorus melody fits over some of “Ole.”

PS BUT HEY WAIT THERE ARE MORE TIN MACHINE SONGS. Yes, yes! As the last two TMII songs were recorded in 1991, we’ll get to them after these few Belew/Sound + Vision posts.

Top: “Reconstructing Light,” Bowie and Belew at the Point Depot, Dublin, 9 August 1990.