Debaser

September 6, 2012

Debaser (the Pixies).
Debaser (Tin Machine, live, 1991).

That’s the whole formula of the Pixies, that one song,” Joey Santiago once said of “Debaser.” “All the sound qualities are there. That’s what it represents.”

Bowie had loved and name-dropped the Pixies ever since he’d first heard Surfer Rosa in 1988. (It’s never been clear whether Reeves Gabrels had turned Bowie onto them or if Bowie had found them on his own.) He was taken by the band’s dynamics, Santiago’s guitar playing, Black Francis’ lyrics, their mingle of trash TV and surrealism, and Francis’ stage presence itself (“his mass of screaming flesh”).

And his favorite Pixies song was “Debaser,” the lead-off track of Doolittle. Bowie saw it as a quintessentially American song, dealing with religion and debasement and, most of all, ambition, with a crackpot joy running through it. It’s a disciple’s song, a boy somehow stumbling across Un Chien Andalou* on television and getting worked up, entranced by the idea of being a professional irritant, a worm in society (the original lyric was “Ma, I wanna be..“) As Francis screams “De-BASE-ER,” Kim Deal quietly repeats the word after him, as though she’s trying to coach a demented child, while Santiago’s riff cycles around him.

So Tin Machine covering “Debaser,” which they played in nearly every show of their 1991-92 tour, was both tribute and evangelism (Bowie considered the Pixies shamefully underexposed in America). Bowie gave it to Tony Sales, but as the tour went on, he turned it into a duet, Bowie becoming a hype man for the song, jabbing and weaving into Tony, his phrasings ranging from the manic to the robotic (in a Tokyo performance, Bowie blankly intoned the “ha ha ha ho” lines). While Tony didn’t come anywhere close to Francis’ yawp (and his “Andalucia,” which Francis had sung in exaggerated Castilian, sounds like “Andalooser”), he was game enough and seemed to get caught up in the song each night that he sang it. The band, especially Hunt Sales’ bludgeoning 4/4, discarded the clockwork precision of the Pixies’ original–how the song quickly crests from Deal’s bassline to Santiago’s riff to David Lovering’s fills—in favor of just thrashing away at the song as though they meant to beat it into submission.

Performed throughout the “It’s My Life” tour, with the above recording from one of their last US concerts, the Warfield in San Francisco, 17 December 1991.

* Or Purple Rain. The original chorus lyric was “shed, Apollonia!,” a reference to Apollonia’s nude scene in that film.

Top: Kevin Westenberg, “The Pixies,” outtake from the Bossanova photo shoot, 1990; included in the Trompe Le Monde tour program, 1991 (scan via this site).


One Shot

September 4, 2012

One Shot (earlier version).
One Shot (single edit).
One Shot (live, 1991).

In December 1990, Bowie and EMI divorced, with mutual recriminations. Bowie groused about what he considered poor promotion of Never Let Me Down and Tin Machine, while EMI pointedly noted that the best-charting Bowie album of the past half-decade had been a Rykodisc reissue (ChangesBowie had hit #1 in the UK the past March). Bowie’s world tour in 1990 did little to promote any EMI record. Now Bowie was offering them another Tin Machine album, and one with such enticements as “Stateside” and “A Big Hurt.” EMI passed; Bowie split.

Though he’d loved to complain about his labels, Bowie had been built, in part, by RCA and EMI, by their worldwide sales channels, their sacks of promotional dollars. The labels had been irritated about putting out a Low or a Tin Machine, but they still bought trade ads and in-store promo material for them, they still made the records available for someone in Kankakee to buy, they still had pushed them on the radio, if indifferently. If clueless and occasionally corrupt, the dinosaur labels that had released the bulk of Bowie’s oeuvre had provided a level of patronage that’s inconceivable for a musician of Bowie’s bent today. Even Bowie would never have its like again—he spent the Nineties as a free agent, jumping from label to label, sometimes going it alone, always on the hustle, and so offering a preview of the lot of the average pro musician in 2012.

So in 1991, for the first time in nearly 25 years, Bowie didn’t have a record deal, and all he had to sell was a waning commercial reputation and some promo mixes of Tin Machine II. His back catalog, having been freshly licensed off, couldn’t be used as bait. So amidst filming The Linguini Incident and an episode of Dream On (the latter had one of Bowie’s best camp performances), Bowie wearily flogged TMII to a number of labels.

Around March 1991, he found a taker. Victory Music was the first-ever US-based label launched by a Japanese company, the electronics giant JVC. With former Atlantic Records exec Phil Carson hired to run it, Victory pursued a cut-rate strategy of picking up “classic rock” icons past their prime. Hence its first signings: Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Tin Machine. (Victory would soon sign Yes and Paul Rodgers, then mercifully expired around 1994).

As Tin Machine II would be Victory’s first big release, the label wanted the Machine back in the studio to shine up the record and to cut another prospective single. Unfortunately, these sessions were run by the albatross of Bowie producers, Hugh Padgham. Padgham had a career of making smashes for other pop stars but for Bowie, for whatever karmic reasons, he produced Tonight and “One Shot.”

If “Goodbye Mr. Ed” was Tin Machine in their best light, “One Shot” was hard evidence of why they needed to die. It’s an airless box of a record. To be fair, the band is merely dull here, with Padgham’s production doing them no favors. Bowie was the main villain of the piece, offering a garish, grating vocal in the service of a thuggish, cliche-strewn lyric (“ten dollars tore us apart…one shot put her away“: there’s livelier writing on James Patterson book jacket copy).

Ian MacDonald once said that a tell of when Lennon and McCartney were slumming as lyricists was when they sang about buying their girlfriends jewels, and there’s something analogous in Bowie’s writing in this period—when inspiration falters, some girl gets smacked around. Call it Bowie working out some mid-life frustrations, channeling a stillborn character that he could never realize, or attempting another spavined roundabout critique of domestic violence. The cumulative effect of these songs was a general sourness, a coarseness; they had the stink of a cheap fantasy, third-hand caricature.

The lyric, a meager thing dragged out across two verses and three bridges (Bowie repeats all of his stanzas to pad out the song), contrasts a hard-knock couple locked in some firetrap of their own devising with a softer dreamworld—their recollected former life or how society sees them from the outside (the bridges: “look out on a green world/windows and wives“). But Bowie’s writing is so vague here, using the emptiest of lines to hit emotional peaks, that when the guy eventually shoots his wife (or as Bowie sings it, “put her ah-way-uh-hey-hey!“) the song offers nothing. No remorse, no anger, no disgust, not even would-be badassery. It’s a paper doll killing another paper doll, but here the dollmaker thinks it has pathos.

Rock & roll lyrics often use minimal language to sound emotional truths, with the cliche, when deployed well, serving as a narrative twist or a grace note, an undermined joke. Bowie’s lyric here can’t even rise to the level of a film noir cliche, as is the apparent intent. He rhymes “meanest” with “pieces”; the dead wife was a “spitfire” who gave him “hot love” (was poor Marc Bolan exhumed for this thing?) Bowie’s vocal (double-tracked an octave apart) generally worsens his lines—he gives an empty-shell bravado to the title line, while there’s a constipated straining to hit the high notes in the third verse. On stage, Bowie acted as though “One Shot” was a cover whose lyric he was recalling while he was singing it, much to his frustration.

The band first cut “One Shot” during the 1989 Sydney sessions for TM II, then revised the track with Padgham in Los Angeles. The earlier versions of the track have close to the final lyric, but are taken at a slower tempo and set in a different key, with Gabrels trying out various guitar tones and solos. To be fair to Padgham and the Machine, the final version and mix at least are passable, with some structural variations added—the vocal-and-drums-only third verse; the change of lyric for the third bridge repeat.

There are a few things in its favor. Gabrels’ guitar solo, which Tony Sales described as “smooth, sax-like,” has a nice melodic arc to it. (That said, Gabrels erases any accrued goodwill with 56 bars worth of skronk soloing in the outro, which was trimmed by a minute in the single edit.) The vocal harmonies in the intro and chorus show how much an undeveloped aspect of the Machine that was—Bowie never deployed the Sales brothers well as singers, whether as straight support or as the goon chorus of Iggy Pop’s “Success.” And the minor-key bridges, with Bowie’s softly ascending phrases and Gabrels’ guitar ostinato, serve as respites to the hectoring verses.

Still, after all of the bluster about Tin Machine, about how radical they were, how hard they pushed an audience, how uncontrollable a force they were, how they were a knives-out democracy who bloodied Bowie but got him out of the Eighties, here Bowie is in March 1991, back with Hugh Padgham, grinding out tepid, sour corporate rock. Which lacked even the comfort of sales, as TMII flopped. It’s as though Bowie had fallen into a wormhole and found himself in 1986, grubbing again for radio play, trying to seem “relevant” by being vulgar, making an Eddie Money gangster record. (There’s a dated pop sound to the final mix (it slightly jars with the rest of TM II) with Hunt Sales’ snare suddenly sounding like Phil Collins’.)

Consider the world that “One Shot” was sent into: Nevermind about to be released, Slanted & Enchanted and Loveless and Select Ambient Works and The Chronic about to write the grammar of the new decade, the pop charts alive with clatter and sparks. Some of Bowie’s contemporaries were woken up. Neil Young was doing feedback concertos to rival Sonic Youth; Bob Dylan was holed up in his garage taping old murder ballads; even the Stones put out a half-decent Gulf War protest single. Where was Bowie? Making tatty proof that he’d lost the plot. One of Bowie’s most aesthetically bankrupt records, “One Shot” was the dead-end that he’d banged on about in his lyric.

Recorded March 1991, A&M Studios, Los Angeles (the earlier versions likely came from the Sydney sessions in late 1989 and possibly from various 1990 sessions). Released as TM II‘s third single in Germany, Japan and Australia (there was only a promo single released in the US).

Top: the managing general partner of the Texas Rangers contemplates an unimaginable future, C-SPAN interview, 11 June 1991.


Goodbye Mr. Ed

August 28, 2012

Goodbye Mr. Ed.
Goodbye Mr. Ed (live, Oy Vey Baby, 1992).

This boy had everything. He had the looks, the moves, the manager, and the talent. And he didn’t look like Mr. Ed like a lot of the rest of us did.

Carl Perkins, on Elvis Presley.

Here those which Fortune hath frowned upon in England, to deny them an inheritance amongst their Brethren, or such as by their utmost labors can scarcely procure a living, I say such may procure here inheritances of lands and possessions…That I must needs say, that if there be any terrestrial Canaan, ‘tis surely here, where the Land floweth with milk and honey. The inhabitants are blessed with Peace and plenty, blessed in their Country.

Daniel Denton, A Brief Relation of New-York, 1670.

Goodbye to what, really? Not America, where he would come to live, or American music, particularly black American music, which he would emulate (passive-aggressively) on his next record. Not his youth: that was already gone. Not spectacle, not celebrity: he’d already tried to enroll himself into witness protection with Tin Machine. It wasn’t even meant to be goodbye to the Machine, with whom, but for the 1991 tour, he may have been cajoled into making more records. (As it turned out, “Goodbye Mr. Ed,” sequenced to close Tin Machine II, proved the band’s tombstone after all.)

But the song was a farewell of some sort. If not to America itself, then it was the snuffing out of some last spark of the imagined America of David Jones, suburban misfit and aspirant. America became like a dreamland to me, Bowie had said in 1974, while nodding off in a documentary about himself. His relationship to America—the fable-America of his youth; the Nixonian snipers-on-the-roofs madhouse that he snaked through as Ziggy Stardust; the bloated, sated country that he had finally conquered through television in 1983—always had been a sort of estranged fascination. Now he dug at the roots of it, envisioning the start of America which, for Bowie, meant the start of New York: Dutchmen and Indians, 1626.

Bowie recalled an episode of Tony Brown’s Journal about the former inhabitants of Manhattan island who, according to American legend, were the biggest suckers in U.S. real estate history. American history is, in great part, a history of con men and their marks. The Lenape were king marks, royal dupes: the people who had sold Manhattan to the Dutch for sixty guilders worth of baubles. Bowie saw the ghosts of “the Manhattoes” standing on the roof of Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building, the latest capitalist tower-shrine erected upon what had once been a farm or burial ground. The Manhattoes taking the view, then hurling themselves off the tower, screaming. The name was wrong—the Native Americans who had lived on Manhattan island were the Lenape. “Manhattoes,” Bowie’s word, had been coined by white colonists, taken up centuries later by Washington Irving and Herman Melville. So the Lenape are suicidal ghosts denied their own name. Their defiance, jumping off a landmark skyscraper, eerily predicted a NYC catastrophe a decade later, the death to come.

With that as a founding image, Bowie wrote the rest of “Goodbye Mr. Ed” by “juxtaposing lines which really shouldn’t fit, free-association around the idea of ‘bye-bye ’50s America,'” he said in 1991. The reoccurring figure is “someone”—the indifferent angel of “Look Back in Anger,” the blank eye of the television tube, a bored God—seeing it all, watching the wrack of a civilization piling up. The lyric is a stroll through a ruminative mind: Andy Warhol’s skull, housed in a shrine in a Queens shopping mall; Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (possibly reached via WC Williams’ poem); a soured nursery rhyme. It ends with the Sex Pistols and their inheritors, the former seeding demon eggs, the latter left to hatch them. A gnomic end to a gnomic lyric—the Pistols as the end-stage cancer of rock music, the acrid revenge of Britain on the music of its lost colonies.

Bowie’s vocal is a studied exhaustion, keeping to a narrow range, with his strongest vocal melody nicked from Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore” (cf. the descending “shrieking as they fall”; h/t Nicholas Pegg). The song’s structure is a set of irregular verses, three brief solos and a repeated bridge. In the verses, Bowie’s lines are a loose iambic trimeter, each phrase generally five or six syllables with a strong-beat/weak-beat rhythm (“AN-dy’s SKULL en-SHRINED”), while Bowie sings the title line flatly, giving the same cold intonation to each of the five syllables, letting the stop (“ed”) quickly expire.

The vocal mutes the accumulation of bizarre images in the lyric, Bowie’s delivery suggesting that nothing in the ruined landscape of his imagined America holds any ability to surprise anymore. The miraculous and the uncanny have become bric-a-brac. My brain hurt like a warehouse, he’d once sung, when he was nothing but voice, color and ambition. Now he was absently sorting through it, wondering why he’d bothered to fill it up in the first place.

“Goodbye Mr. Ed”* began as what Tony Sales recalled as a “tuning-up thing” from the Sydney sessions, an instrumental studio jam to loosen everyone up (so it may have been similar to something like “Exodus”). The Sales brothers wrote the music with Bowie, and the final track has some of their finest performances. Tony plays parrying, unsettled basslines throughout, making a wistful ascent before the first bridge, while there’s a loneliness in his querying notes in the solo between the bridges. Hunt deftly handles the swift, erratic changes of tempo, varying the buildups to start each verse, jabbing in sharp little snare fills throughout, giving thundering kick work in the bridges.

Reeves Gabrels spent 1990 chasing Bowie, using down weeks in the “Sound + Vision” tour as opportunities to overdub the provisional Tin Machine II tracks. “‘Goodbye Mr. Ed’ was just a rhythm track until we got to Miami,” Gabrels said. “Mr. Ed” appears to have been finally completed during the last sessions for the album in March 1991 (see endnote).

But where on other TMII tracks Gabrels had dubbed dozens of new guitar lines, with vibrator vibrato and shards of feedback, his contributions to “Mr. Ed” are more spare, more precise. Take the intro, where a rapidly-picked acoustic guitar in the right channel is joined, two bars later, by an electric guitar playing a shrill version of the same riff, while another electric, first only heard as a distant echo in the left channel, quickly emerges as a rival voice. Another electric guitar dub offers a flourish, then Tony Sales’ bass and Hunt’s cymbals arrive with Bowie to propel the song to its early climax (midway into the first verse). It’s Glenn Branca’s “Lesson No. 1 for Electric Guitar” in miniature, a guitar symphony condensed to 20 seconds.

Throughout the track Gabrels offers new melodies, new agitations—a nagging ostinato, the singing phrases in the space before the first bridge. After Bowie’s final goodbye, the song sinks into itself, imploding, the players fading out and creeping back in, warring to be heard: the last thing that you hear is a repeating busy signal via feedback.

Despite its wayward creation, having been pieced together over years and continents, “Goodbye Mr. Ed” was one of the best group performances that Tin Machine ever recorded—within its brief span, they were the band they were always intended to be. It’s also one of Bowie’s most inspired vocals of the era, the musings of a dry man idly watching TV. “Mr. Ed” answers and augments the frustrated, spent figure who sang “I Can’t Read” (the corpse of Warhol exhumed again)—here it’s a man unraveling a myth that he once needed to live. Despite the chaos of its lyric and the brief surge of contempt heard in the bridge (Bowie giving sharper emphases to his lines in the repeat), “Mr. Ed” is another retreat, another surrender in a season of them, a man closing down another wing of some grand abandoned house, further reducing himself (it’s telling how many of Bowie’s best songs of the Eighties are resignation letters). One of the peaks of the Tin Machine era, and its worthy epitaph.

Recorded ca. October-November 1989, 301 Studios, Sydney; (vocals, overdubs, poss. retakes) ca. April 1990, Miami; ca. October-November 1990, London; March 1991, Los Angeles. Performed on the 1991-92 tour, with a version from Tokyo, February 1992, on Oy Vey, Baby.

* I love to imagine that Bowie got the title from this headline in the 16 October 1990 Weekly World News.

An endnote on chronology, suitable only for obsessives: As EMI had rejected releasing another Tin Machine album, by the end of 1990 Bowie no longer had a record contract. Throughout 1990, Bowie and Gabrels worked on the Sydney tapes to make them more “commercial” to EMI, and latterly to lure another label. Sessions were held during rare off weeks for “Sound + Vision.” So the Miami session that Gabrels mentioned likely coincided with the S&V stops in Florida, around 27 April- 5 May 1990. There’s another documented dub/mixing session, with Tim Palmer engineering, at Eel Pie Studios in London, in late October-November 1990 (Matt Rescinoff, from Musician, attended the Eel Pie session and then visited the Machine again in LA on 18 June 1991 (which he said was “eight months later” from the Eel Pie session). The March 1991 sessions in LA, where the master version of “Mr. Ed” was likely completed, were at the behest of Bowie’s new label, Victory—we’ll get into that more when we reach “One Shot.”

Top: Lucian Perkins, “A Survivor of the Gulf War,” 1991 (William Meyers: “yellow fires flare up across the horizon of al-Burgan oil fields south of Kuwait City. The ground to the horizon is sand dotted with small shrubs, and the sky above the horizon is blue and black with smoke from the fires. A donkey in the left foreground rears upon its hindlegs, almost vertically, as if dancing. The donkey has some bedding from an Iraqi trench in its mouth“); US Air Force, “F-16A, F-15C and F-15E flying during Desert Storm,” Kuwait, 1991.