Strangers When We Meet

January 10, 2013

riots

Strangers When We Meet (promo mix).
Strangers When We Meet (Buddha of Suburbia).
Strangers When We Meet (Outside.)
Strangers When We Meet (single edit, video, Outside).
Strangers When We Meet (live, 1995).
Strangers When We Meet (The Tonight Show, 1995).
Strangers When We Meet (Top of the Pops, 1995).
Strangers When We Meet (Later with Jools Holland, 1995).

“Strangers When We Meet” appears on two Bowie albums, neither of which it suited. On Buddha of Suburbia, its first, sparser incarnation stood out as the most “standard” track of the record, though it sounded undercooked when compared with the effulgence of “Untitled No. 1.” Realizing that he’d thrown away a possible hit on an album that wasn’t released in the US, Bowie reworked “Strangers” in the last sessions of Outside, for which it served as the closing track.

On Outside, the bright chorus melody of “Strangers” was a payoff for a listener who had endured a long, dark, claustrophobic album. Coming after a set of 18 “segues” and generally ominous tracks, “Strangers” felt like a boarded-up window being pried open to let in the sunlight. That said, “Strangers” also sounded like a bonus track, like something appended to the album after it was used in a film.

“Strangers” seems at heart one of Bowie’s transient songs, one more suited for the stateless company of “Holy Holy,” “John, I’m Only Dancing,” “Under Pressure” and “Alabama Song” than it was for any album. It was a pure single that Bowie instead netted and mounted in two different tableaux. And while it felt like a hit, “Strangers” wound up a relative obscurity. Released as Outside‘s second single, it was eclipsed by its B-side, a so-called “live” version (it wasn’t) of “Man Who Sold the World.” “Strangers” only reached #39 in the UK and didn’t chart anywhere else in the world but Sweden. Had it been Outside‘s lead-off single, or had Bowie put it out ahead of the album in, say, spring 1995, perhaps it could’ve had more space to thrive in.

Its commercial failure was a shame, as “Strangers” has one of Bowie’s sturdiest melodies and most haunting lyrics of his later years. It should have been ranked with “Absolute Beginners” and “Modern Love” as one of Bowie’s beloved “silver age” hits; “Strangers,” rather than “Jump They Say,” feels like it should have been the last big Bowie pop moment. Perhaps it was too somber for its time; the doomed, conflicted relationship that dominates its lyric denying any easy access for a listener.

“Strangers” began as another of Bowie’s trawls through the past while he was making Buddha, as the song is built on the bassline of the Spencer Davis Group’s “Gimme Some Lovin'” (which Bowie had already used, jokingly, in his “Join the Gang”). Bowie was also playing with the associations that its title phrase summoned up. “Strangers when we meet” was associated with adultery: it had titled a Kirk Douglas film about tortured adultery and had been the chorus hook of Leroy Van Dyke’s jaunty ode to adultery, “Walk on By” (“just walk on by/wait on the corner/I love you but we’re strangers when we meet”). In all its uses, the secret lovers in question had to play-act as strangers in public, reserving their true feelings for behind closed doors.The Smithereens had a song in the Eighties that continued these associations—don’t look my way, I’ve still got a wife, I really love you, remember, but we’re going to be strangers on the street.

So Bowie’s lyric took this set of expectations and undermined them. Rather than being any sort of secret lovers, the couple in the song are so brutally alienated from each other, are so consumed by passive/aggressive emotional violence, that they often literally cannot recognize who they once were. There’s an emotional numbness, with the singer’s world bled free of color. “All our friends, now seem so thin and frail,” Bowie begins. The TV shows a blank screen, religion has no consolations, nor does nature (“splendid sunrise, but it’s a dying world“). Sometimes the couple even forget each other’s names. The man weeps in bed, cringes when she tries to embrace him.

The twist is, as the final chorus comes around, that the singer masochistically welcomes this state. Numbness, disassociation, alienation are at least some sort of feeling. Better to serve in hell, as the line goes. As the end chorus begins, with the beat slightly increasing in tempo, Bowie tears into his lines with a sudden, growing conviction. ALL your REGRETS ride ROUGH-SHOD over me, he sings. I’m so GLAD…I’m so THANKFUL…I’m in CLOVER…HEEL HEAD OVER that they’re strangers. Because then they can pretend to fall in love again.

strangers

Bowie didn’t alter the song’s structure when he remade it for Outside. “Strangers” remained a standard progression in A major, with the verses banked to quickly sweep in the dominant chord, E, (“secrets”) after a tense pit stop on a B eleventh chord (“thin and frail”). The choruses reverse course, beginning on E (“violence”) and quickly shuttling back home to the tonic, A (“the sheet”).

The revisions were more subtle, and owed to the greater cast of characters in the studio: Mike Garson, often keeping to the bass end of his piano, offers small commentary and a lovely, ruminative solo; Reeves Gabrels discards the agitated, jabbing hook in the original track’s verses for a set of subtler colors (he also provides a few what-the-hell noises, like the Fripp-esque “elephant roar”  in the intro). Kizilcay on bass plays a similar groove as his performance on the original (it’s also possibly Yossi Fine on bass here) while the drumming, whether Sterling Campbell or Joey Baron, is more dynamic. (The revision moved “Strangers” from the dance floor to a locked room, especially given the diminished presence of the synth drum “march” pattern that had been the backbone of the Buddha version.)

For me, the Outside version’s superiority lies mainly in Bowie’s vocal. His singing on the remake seems an extended critique of his earlier performance. The original found Bowie strong, confident, in full form as “Bowie,” happily delivering on expectations. The double-tracked close harmonies of the chorus emphasized the hearty strengths of its melody and Bowie took the closing lines as a series of hurdles, delighting in his rhymes, bringing the song to a close as if he was landing a plane. On Outside, this bravado has fallen away. Bowie begins in a near-conversational tone, in what sounds like his “gumshoe” Nathan Adler voice—he’s acting, playing a ridiculous role, and in the first chorus he breaks down. His emphases land on unexpected beats: he sings “strangers when we meet” now, letting the last word trail off—it gives a more provisional feel to the line, the singer fixating on the “when,” knowing that they may never meet again. And in the closing chorus, the naked beauty of his voice (accompanied by a ghostly, lower-mixed backing vocal) makes the climactic lines a series of painful, hard-fought delusions.

It’s one of his finest, most beautiful, autumnal songs—Bowie would spend his some of his last decade as a performer (well, until this past Tuesday) playing variations of the character, someone betrayed and bewildered by life, that he unveiled on “Strangers.” Whether he ever bettered it is another question.

Recorded: (original) June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux; (remake) ca. January-February 1995, Westside Studios, New York. A longer, different mix of the original “Strangers” appeared on a Dutch promotional cassette—its most notable differences are the lack of the “Gimme Some Lovin'” hook and a greater emphasis on the synth drums. The remake of “Strangers was released in November 1995 as RCA/BMG 74321 32940 2 (c/w “Man Who Sold the World,” #39 UK—the UK CD single also had “Get Real,” one of two “official” Outside outtakes.) Performed on the Outside and Earthling tours as well as on the Tonight Show on 27 October 1995, TOTP on 9 November 1995 and Jools Holland on 3 December 1995.

Top: “Allison DC,” “Riot Grrrls, Gay Rights March,” Washington DC, April 1993.

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Ian Fish, U.K. Heir

January 8, 2013

post perestroika

Ian Fish, U.K. Heir.

We foreclose on reality prematurely, Karim. Our minds are richer and wilder than we ever imagine.

Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia.

In a field/I am the absence/of field.
This is/always the case.
Wherever I am/I am what is missing.

Mark Strand, “Keeping Things Whole.”

It’s six minutes, twenty nine seconds long. Its first minute is a slow fade-in of sounds that remain faded. What seems like a woman’s voice but isn’t appears, mixed so low that it’s merely a faint suggestion of a voice, as if you hear someone singing in another apartment. In the right channel, there’s a string (or synth) loop that repeats a croaking phrase every four bars, if there are such things as bars in such an inchoate song. There’s static. The static is a tangible thing: a smear of crackling, buzzing sound, which swathes all of the other ghost sounds in a loose blanket. A trickle of piano, quickly silenced. Deep in the mix there’s a ceaseless two-note noise, like the sound of a phone left off the hook, or a signal barely picked up from a radio conning tower.

About 1:15 in, an acoustic guitar appears. Its player toys with the “Buddha of Suburbia” melody (especially around 2:50), but even this proves to be too much ambition. The guitar plays a few notes, some sounded on the high E string, some consonant twangs of the G and B strings; a lonely arpeggio or two; nothing to constitute a melody. Just a note here, another there, succeeded by others, all decaying quickly. Nothing resolves, nothing builds. This is a genetic soup of music; it’s all potential. All you hear are only notes, little impositions of sound, a thumb and a forefinger plucking a taut string. A twitch of a wrist muscle, a whim that hopes the hollow body of the guitar will make something of it.

Nothing much else. Around 2:45, a synthesizer grows more distinct, sounding a bass note, trying to give the track a sense of depth. The piano returns, plays a few trilling notes. A few little synthetic chirps, like automaton birdsong. As the track ends, having never really begun, the background static gains presence. You realize the static has carried a little rhythm all along, a slight chugging 4/4. The voice grows more distinct at last: you can almost make it out. But you can’t. Closing static.

“Ian Fish, U.K. Heir” is, in David Buckley’s words, “intriguingly unlistenable.” It is difficult to concentrate on “Ian Fish” for its entire length: I had to will myself to pay full attention, wearing my headphones and telling the dog to leave the room. When played on speakers, its sounds soon blend into the grumbles and sighs of a house, or get swept away in street noise. It’s meant to blend, to vanish. “Ian Fish” was Bowie playing on the idea of Eno’s “ambient music.” Eno had proposed a music that didn’t “matter,” that had nothing to draw attention to it: music that could be played to lower a room’s temperature or as background music for airports or theaters.

This was a tall order for Bowie, who even at his most abstract still felt compelled to offer melodies and hooks. “Ian Fish” feels like work, a man determined to deny his instincts. It’s Bowie offering nothing but fragments, a few scattered sound pieces that you could try to fashion into a song, but there’s not quite enough to make it work. Bowie had made Buddha of Suburbia out of scraps, taking motifs that he’d written for the BBC serial and dragging them out, slowing them down, reversing them, poking holes in them, filling the holes with other sounds that he’d scurried up. “Ian Fish” is the space between—it could be a backing track of any other Buddha song; it sounds like a tape that Bowie had not quite erased (I believe there’s bits of “The Mysteries” buried in it), a canvas upon which you can see vague traces of scrapped ideas.

There’s one subtle message: the title “Ian Fish, U.K. Heir” is an anagram of “Hanif Kureishi.” Kureishi, the son of a Pakistani immigrant, Bowie’s successor on the streets of Bromley, is cast as the heir to the country that had spawned David Jones. It’ s a sign that Bowie welcomed the changing face of London, and it echoes Bowie’s long-forgotten “London Bye Ta-Ta,” another London immigrant song from a lifetime before.

Recorded June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux.

Addendum written after the morning’s news:

Well, so there’s to be a new album after all! I blame Scott Walker for finally getting Bowie back in the ring (though it seems like this record was made ca. 2011-early 2012.) I look forward to hearing it. Feel free to use the comments for reactions to it, though I ask that a) you save some of your powder for the song entries, likely in spring 2014 and b) don’t neglect the actual song being discussed too much.

Top: “Olga S.,” “Living room, Moscow, 1993.”


Untitled No. 1

January 3, 2013

bleu

Untitled No. 1.

Words are floated together with a dyslexia that is music itself—a dyslexia that seems meant to prove the claims of music over words, to see just how little words can do.

Greil Marcus, on Bob Dylan’s “I’m Not There.

One idea pulled another behind it, like conjurers’ handkerchiefs…I felt more solid myself, and not as if my mind were just a kind of cinema for myriad impressions and emotions to flicker through.

Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia.

Bowie has called Buddha of Suburbia one of his favorite records. Maybe he said that as a bit of mischief, touting his most obscure record as one of his best, like a hipster connoisseur of his own work (and he was). But Buddha did seem to have resonance for Bowie; something about its creation had felt right with him.

One guess: Buddha finally got Bowie past something that had plagued him since 1987, which was the sour legacy of Never Let Me Down. Recall that Bowie originally felt he’d had a creative resurgence making that album, that he’d come back from the slough of Tonight in fighting trim. Then the record got panned as an all-time-low while its subsequent tour became a symbol of clueless excess. The press seemed to want Bowie to make a barefoot pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela to atone for it. The blow to his confidence was staggering; he stumbled through half a decade. After NLMD, he fashioned an anti-“Bowie”-persona with Tin Machine, while he paced his “public” self through soulless exercises like the Sound + Vision tour. Even Black Tie White Noise, for which he was in happier spirits, found him undermining an alleged commercial comeback without much in the way of “art” songs to compensate.

On Buddha, he finally just seemed to let it all go. Maybe the process of the album’s creation, with Bowie thumbing through the past, letting 30 years of songs, memories and film clips flicker by as if in a child’s flipbook, gave him perspective enough to realize that the whole NLMD era would be a footnote. And he had nothing at stake on Buddha, which was just a weird spin-off of an obscure BBC soundtrack. He sat in his studio for a week and, using Erdal Kizilcay as a second pair of hands, fashioned whatever came into his head. Some of it was lovely, some of it was odd, but it was all of a piece, it held together; it was a humbly coherent record.

He closed the record with a thematic pair of songs. One, “Ian Fish, U.K. Heir” was an ebbing, a long subtraction, a song made out of what’s left when the tub’s drained (we’ll get to it next week). The other, “Untitled No. 1,” was the sound of the waters rushing in. It was so filled with melody, so dedicated to simple beauties, so easily and blissfully content as music, that it seems to have brokered a creative peace within Bowie. He came to rest here.

blanche

The title was a joke, Bowie naming a pop song as though it was a painting (reflecting a growing interest in contemporary art that, as we’ll soon see, would dominate his life in the mid-Nineties) and reflecting its lyric. The latter’s nonsensical, in the best sense of the word. It’s two verses and a chorus built of words chosen entirely for their flavor, their internal rhymes and rhythms. Lines extend in happy strings of consonance and assonance, cut to fit the generous spread of music that Bowie and Kizilcay laid out.

Bowie had his secret alphabets in “Subterraneans” and “Warszawa,” and he’d used cut-up to generate “random” lyrics since the early Seventies (and he was about to go whole-hog again on Outside, having upgraded to using cut-up software on a Mac Powerbook). But there’s a languid ease in his “non-lyric” here, in his long, slightly descending phrases of indeterminable English. Most of them begin with Bowie in his high register, dwelling on some lovely, opaque words, until he relaxes his grip and slides downward:  In mornings she’s so regal that the [valley/curlew] sighs or Now we’re swimming rock [farther/by there] with [the doll/the idol] by our sides…

Or the indecipherable chorus hook: Shimi Kapoor? See Me Kapoor? City Kapo? There’s no right answer: it’s simply a giddy bubble of emotion, carried in a few swoops of sound. It’s reminiscent of how the Cocteau Twins’ Elizabeth Fraser phrased her songs, breaking lines down to syllables, turning common English into a gorgeous glossolalia (on paper, one line in “Lorelei” is “Lift up your toes /in my mouth,” but Fraser sings it like a Venusian would). Or Clare Torry on Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky,” who, asked to improvise a vocal, decided instead to be an instrument.

There’s possibly a prayer buried in the second verse. The only line that Bowie sings distinctly is “it’s clear that some things never take.

rouge

Still, to stay too long on a lyric that Bowie deliberately obscured is to neglect the track’s other pleasures. The little melodies that Bowie and Kizilcay keep dazzling you with, as if they’re adding more and more spinning plates upon a table: the rising scale motif that’s occasionally met by a groaning bass, like sunlight rousing a sleeper; the swirling gypsy synth figure in the breaks; the simple guitar solo, its player (Bowie?) opening with a line that entrances him so much that he just plays the last notes again and again; the jangling countermelody to the opening scale motif that soon molts into a trebly barrelhouse piano. Or in its most gonzo moment, when “Untitled” suddenly breaks down into a quasi-Indian dance track until the rhythm guitar, which has been the track’s quiet powerhouse from the start, noses in and closes things out.

And then there’s the bleating, neighing sound in the later choruses, which seems like Bowie’s parody of Marc Bolan’s singing voice (see “Black Country Rock”). Had the whole song been a secret requiem for Bolan, Bowie’s fellow traveler, one who had gone lost so many years before? (One can easily imagine Bolan singing something like “Sleepy Kapo.”) If so, it’s a tribute that more honors the living, the gracious hours that we have left to us. “Untitled” burgeons. There are a few times where it seemed as though Bowie could have stood up, then and there, and never recorded another note again: these tiny eddies of finality, in which everything in Bowie’s work and life reconciled for a moment before they broke apart again. This is one of them.

Recorded June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux.

Top to bottom: Juliette Binoche, Trois Coleurs: Bleu; Julie Delphy, Trois Couleurs: Blanc; Irene Jacob, Trois Couleurs: Rouge. (Kieslowski, 1993-1994).


Bleed Like a Craze, Dad

December 17, 2012

93stockholm

Bleed Like a Craze, Dad.

Bowie had been a dedicated self-recycler from his earliest days, although he used to take more pains about his sleight of hand (burying the likes of “I Am a Lazer” and “Tired of My Life” so that their descendents on Scary Monsters seemed like fresh songs). By 1993, Bowie was opening the lab door, letting you watch him stitch a fresh piece together.

“Bleed Like a Craze, Dad” feels like a set of rough mixes that Bowie’s considering using for some other song, but his trial-and-error process of creation winds up being the actual track. There’s the self-sampling: the bassline from “Sister Midnight,” already reused on “Red Money,” while Mike Garson’s flown-in piano gives tastes of his work on “Lady Grinning Soul” (a little dancing phrase on high keys in the intro suggests the latter, but it gets diverted and broken down by the guitar kicking in). Then there’s the cohesion in real time of the song itself—take how Bowie sews together the chorus, first the guitar/keyboard vamp anchored on the “Sister Midnight” bass, then introducing the “shine, shine, shine” hook (very Tears for Fears) and then, finally at 1:50, singing the title line. The assembled chorus doesn’t arrive for another thirty seconds.

The lyric seems owed to a similar picking-up-sticks method, with Bowie using cut-up to fill his three brief and rapped verses with a run of words, occasionally wedded by similar vowel or consonant sounds (astral/kestrel, footnote/footstone, parlous/parlours, Shirley/Charley), down to the title phrase itself, a pun on the Kray Brothers.

The Krays (and “friends of the Krays I had known,” as Bowie wrote) were part of Bowie’s memory jog while writing Buddha of Suburbia. Twin gangster brothers who ran West End nightclubs in the Sixties as part of their racketeering, the Krays were as much part of Swinging London as Mary Quant (even being photographed by David Bailey for his Box of Pin Ups). Their connections with the London entertainment world meant that many musicians came into their orbit at one time or another (“very dangerous people those Kray twins,” as Ray Davies recalled in “London Song”) and their thuggish glamour fit the times—what’s Get Carter but “a Kray Brother visits Newcastle”? Criminality had a fashionable allure for the smart London set, and decades later, as Morrissey noted, the Krays remained a celebrity crush for some. On “Bleed,” the Krays are used as part of a London Mod biography told in a few scattered fragments, the Bewlay Brothers on the town (“how they drank from the jazz,” “seek for a leather journey,” “living on a movie”).

There are some subtle touches of keyboards and organ (and a guitar arpeggio that cycles throughout the track), the bassline is good enough to have been used in three Bowie tracks, and Garson, while vanishing for long stretches, manages to parry his way into a backing track that seemed inhospitable for him—he makes a lark of it, opening with a parody of a Debussy prelude and jabbing out a few scattered notes while the sludgy guitars kick in. The question is Erdal Kizilcay, who’s charged with playing the Robert Fripp/Reeves Gabrels sonic-disruptor role here but instead mainly offers tasteful guitar licks suitable for a Richard Marx record. Kizilcay was a player who lacked irony, and his presence here (perversely, intentionally?) generates some tension—he’s another piece that doesn’t quite cohere in the mix, contributing to the track’s sense of turbulence.

Recorded ca. June-July 1993 at Mountain Studios, Montreux.

Top: Joacim Osterstam, “The Stockholm Archipelago, 1993.”


Sex and the Church

December 10, 2012

zurich 93

Sex and the Church.

Sex I loved; like drugs, it was play, headiness. I’d grown up with lads who taught me that sex was disgusting. It was smells, smut, embarrassment and horse laughs.

The Buddha of Suburbia.

An open marriage of Prince’s The Black Album and Laurie Anderson, “Sex and the Church” is an intriguing, if far overlong, Bowie studio experiment. As Anderson did on “O Superman” (which Bowie later covered live), Bowie spoke his lines through a vocoder and then treated the vocal track, speeding it up and down at times. The backing track is a demonstration manual of Mountain Studios’ inventory of drum machines, keyboards and sequencers, and there’s enough space in the six-minutes-plus of playing time for a Bowie saxophone solo (later in the track Bowie offers a fat Eighties sax hook, as if he’d been listening to Sade or Michael Bolton records) and for Erdal Kizilcay to show off his chops on organ, trumpet and bass. As with “South Horizon,” weak beats hobble the track, while its lackadaisical sense of development doesn’t make time pass any swifter.

Bowie’s lyric took a cue from the struggles of Buddha of Suburbia‘s lead character, Karim, who goes through the book (and series) sleeping with whoever he can, male or female. A second-generation Indian immigrant, Karim is irreligious, unburdened by any sense of morality or custom, but the spiritual emptiness he suffers at times suggests that the “classless” bed-hopping of Seventies London was a culture unable to sustain itself. Hanif Kureishi’s next novel, The Black Album, delved into one unforeseen response to this: the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism in Nineties London as a means for some children of immigrants to regain a sense of purpose.

There’s nothing that nuanced in Bowie’s lyric, which is an arid musing on sexual freedom and spiritual responsibility, with the singer eventually coming to a happy humanist conclusion: Give me the freedom of spirit/And the joys of the flesh/And sex. Nice work if you can get it. Bowie closed out “Sex and the Church” with a callback to glam (the rave-up ending of “Jean Genie”) and some moans, but the whole production had a cold, disassociated feel, the sound of a virtual reality sex program punched up by a Philip K. Dick character.

Recorded ca. June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux.

Top: Stefan Bucher, “Street Parade #2,” Zurich, August 1993.


Dead Against It

December 6, 2012

93etienne

Dead Against It.

When we meet for a while, Tuesday morning ten a.m…
Everyone’s dreaming of all they’ve got to live for.

Saint Etienne, “Mario’s Cafe.”

I couldn’t yet see how the city worked, but I began to find out. London seemed like a house with five thousand rooms, all different; the trick was to work out how they all connected, and eventually to walk through all of them.

Kureishi, Buddha of Suburbia.

Getting free of the suburbs is just the half of it. In Buddha, Karim’s first encounters with London are riddled with insecurities (“We could have been from Bombay. We’d never catch up,” he says of himself and a friend, when compared to the sharply-dressed city kids “who walked like little gods“), and he soon beats a retreat to his Bromley home.

As did Bowie, who in the Sixties mainly knew London as a Mod commuter (see “The London Boys” or “I Dig Everything,” the latter the fantasy of a kid going home on the train and wishing he was waking up in Chelsea instead) and who had to set up house in Beckenham to mature as a songwriter. Hunky Dory is a suburban record; only on Aladdin Sane and Diamond Dogs did Bowie really move to the city. (He once described his dystopia Hunger City as the place that “Ziggy comes from.” So Ziggy Stardust was an exile in suburbia, a hipster who’d fled the city to bring the message to kids in Orpington and Croydon.)

The wonderful “Dead Against It,” with its whirligig instrumentation (a battery of synthesizers, sequencers and thin-sounding drum machines and, after the first chorus, dueling guitars), its trebly mix and caffeinated tempo, could soundtrack a suburbanite first set loose in the city, overwhelmed by the bounty of available actions and unable even to keep on the sidewalk (recall the scene in Murnau’s Sunrise when the country couple first comes to town and get nearly mowed over by cars, trams and pedestrians). It’s a throwback in sound, both to the “Mod Sixties” and, in its tangle of synth/keyboard lines, to the madcap organists of the New Wave, like Steve Nieve, Barry Andrews and Jimmy Destri (a keyboard hook in the chorus has a taste of the one in Blondie’s “Dreaming”).

Mod and punk were urban movements; the latter a retort to the rural pretensions of early Seventies rock, all the back-to-nature records, all the weary songs about life on the highway (disco and hip-hop were other answers). Bowie, by reviving this line of attack, was in sync with some young groups of the early Nineties. The latter were raiding the same jumble of Sixties pop “trash” and punk novelties, retrieving a few shiny bits from the wreckage (often the “square” records mocked by the hipsters of the period, the Lee Hazelwood and Herb Alpert LPs that their parents had owned) and they remade the Sixties from fresh aspects, offered editions of the decade that never were. A Sixties where France Gall and Serge Gainsbourg had been as central as Bob Dylan. Or where the Soixante-Huitards had heard Neu! (see Stereolab’s “Jenny Ondioline,” which tapes over “Hallogallo” for a decade in which revolution seemed beside the point. “I don’t care if the fascists have to win/I don’t care democracy’s being fucked,” Laetitia Sadier sang. “The world is exciting.”)

Or “Cool Britannia.” This would soon enough calcify into a subject for in-flight airplane magazines, but the movement began as a re-engagement with the city: Jarvis Cocker’s Sheffield, or the London of Blur’s Modern Life Is Rubbish, with its barely-hanging-on bedsit dwellers getting a reprieve by going to Primrose Hill. Or Saint Etienne’s “Mario’s Cafe,” with its characters buzzing on the prospects of London life, catching a free hour to grab a bite, compare notes and make plans, trying to top each other’s suggestions. (As one ILX poster wrote recently, “The really specific references in ‘Mario’s Cafe’ and ‘London Belongs to Me’ gave me such a potent sense of who [Etienne] were and the life they led—that spring-like sense of arrival in London from the suburbs and the sheer joy of gigs and cafes and meeting up with friends—and it felt like a life that was potentially accessible to me.“)

dbdead

Of the Buddha tracks, “Dead Against It” especially sounds like its creation: the product of Bowie and Erdal Kizilcay, camped out in their Montreux studio for a week, eating hamburgers and listening to Prince CDs while dashing out odd little tracks. But the cheap-sounding synthesizers, the tinniness of the mix, the no-frills Kizilcay drumming all fit here. “Dead” is pop seemingly made from cast-off instruments, rock and roll played on whatever Bowie had found in a toy store.

It likely began as an instrumental, as three lengthy instrumental stretches bookend and break up the two sets of verses and choruses, and there’s some development in them, as an arpeggiated synthesizer line in the opening section is echoed later by electric guitar (the track closes with intertwining guitars, calling back to the end of “A Hard Day’s Night”). Bowie’s vocal sounds as though it began as a lark. His verses are collections of four-note phrases, mainly ascending (dropping only when the lyric turns dour, like “begins to sigh” or “my words are worn”), to which he set a cut-up derived lyric clotted with internal rhymes. It’s a love letter to the basics of the English language, its vowel sounds, alliterations and phonemes. Take how Bowie reverses where a “dee” plosive sound lands in one barrage, using it to both start and close rhymes:

She is the a-
-ple in my eye
She talked to God
I couldn’t cope
or’d hope eloped
a dope she roped
This salty lie

The moody, distracted girl in question is a sister of those in “Bus Stop” or “What in the World.” She has a long pop history: the girl who doesn’t give the boy the attention he feels he deserves but who escapes to an imaginary world, likely to avoid him (“Western Movies,”She Watch Channel Zero?,” “Books About UFOs,” etc.) Is there something menacing about the singer in “Dead Against It,” his need for control, the way he seems to stare at her while she sleeps? There’s desolation in him, too (take how sadly Bowie sings “salty lie”), the testimony of someone trying to communicate to a lover who’s just as happy to talk to random strangers on the phone. Their drama, oblique and unending as it is, is inconsequential; it’s just what’s happening in one room of the city that Bowie and Kizilcay jerry-rigged. Soon enough the lovers are forgotten, lost in the waves of sound that close out the track.

Recorded ca. June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux. Issued as a B-side of “Buddha of Suburbia.”

Top: “John A-P,” Saint Etienne at the Cardiff Students’ Union, March 1993.


The Mysteries

December 3, 2012

93moscow1

The Mysteries.

Sometimes I felt the whole world was converging on this little room. And as I became more intoxicated and frustrated, I’d throw open the bedroom window as the dawn came up…I wanted my life to begin now, at this instant, just when I was ready for it.

The Buddha of Suburbia.

I spent so much time in my bedroom [in Bromley]. It really was my entire world. I had books up there, my music up there, my record player. Going from my world upstairs out onto the street, I had to pass through this no-man’s-land of the living room, you know, and out the front hall.

David Bowie, 1990.

Over seven minutes long, consisting of washes of synthesizer and slowed-down, reverse-tracked, treated piano and acoustic guitar passages that occasionally resemble melodies, “The Mysteries” likely prompted the FF button for some Buddha of Suburbia listeners. I admit I did this throughout the Nineties. It wasn’t until some depressive evening in the past decade when I heard this track again after a long absence; only then its humble, rationed beauty, its meager war against silence, finally caught me.

In the context of Buddha, “Mysteries” is an aural portrait of a suburban dreamer, a Hanif Kureishi or David Jones stuck in his room on some dreary Sunday, reading, staring at the magazine pages taped to the wall, listening to records on headphones, waiting for something to happen, thoughts floating and expiring like soap bubbles. Those who leave them call the suburbs soulless places, hives of conformity, and there’s some truth to the charge (but the same could be said for your typical urban hipster neighborhood). But this ignores a nourishing side of suburban life for the young: the freedom, time and space it provides for the imagination. Deprived of external stimuli, lacking anywhere to go, stuck in a small house where you can hear the rumble of your parents’ television through the wall, one outlet is daydreaming, idling the mind, planning fanciful escape routes and then, sometimes, turning to creative work.* It’s no coincidence that so many pop musicians have been suburban kids: the suburban misfit welcomes the future; he or she is nocked like an arrow towards it.

If the secret police ordered you to live in the suburbs for the rest of your life, what would you do? Kill yourself? Read? Almost every night I had nightmares and sweats. It was sleeping under that childhood roof which did it. Whatever fear of the future I had, I would overcome it; it was nothing to my loathing of the past.

Buddha.

So “The Mysteries” is a mind at roam, with its bed of synthesizer loops (making a constant double-tracked wash of sound, with some high whistles and “foghorns” appearing in the later minutes—another, lower-mixed loop sounds like a choir) as the droning background of everyday life. Bowie slowed the original tape, which, like “South Horizon,” was derived from a motif used on the Buddha TV series. This “open[ed] up the thick texture dramatically,” leaving room for Erdal Kizilcay to “play the thematic information against it.” The information was phased or reverse-tracked piano and, after two minutes, acoustic guitar: on “Mysteries” these lead instruments offer just brief forays of thought, fraying strings of sound, never developing or expanding on any initial observations; their progress always falls back after a handful of notes, repeating a pattern again or starting a new one just as tentatively, just as fruitlessly.**

Of Bowie’s past work, “Mysteries” is closest to “Moss Garden” (the acoustic guitar here in place of the koto), an instrumental track that seems symphonic compared with the melodic aridity of “Mysteries.” But there’s a lovely yearning in the latter’s absences and in its few presences. The descending three-note motif that appears five times on the track becomes, with each repetition, increasingly more powerful and resonant—its last appearance, late in the track (5:52), rings in triumph.

The title could have come from anywhere: for example, it could be a reference to Philip Glass’ Mysteries and What’s So Funny (1990). I’d like to imagine it calls back to a wonderful line Bowie said in The Man Who Fell to Earth: [Television] shows you everything about life on Earth, but the mysteries remain. Perhaps it’s the nature of television.” The mysteries aren’t shown, but just are; they are simply whatever falls between what we do: the corpuscles of our imaginations.

Recorded ca. June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux. Misprinted as “The Mysterie” on the most recent US CD issue of Buddha.

* I realize this statement dates me as someone from the last generation to grow up without the Internet.

** Paul Trynka’s bio said the track was sampled from “an Austrian classical work,” which doesn’t really narrow the alleged source down too well: Mozart, Haydn, Mahler, the Strausses and Schoenberg all could fit the bill. I’m guessing the reference is to the Second Viennese School of Berg, Webern and Schoenberg, but even their starkest pieces have more flesh on the bone than “Mysteries” does. Any ideas?

Top: Olga Schlyter, “Moscow, November 7, 1993.”


The Buddha of Suburbia

November 27, 2012

The Buddha of Suburbia.
The Buddha of Suburbia (“rock” mix).

Rarely now do we artists tell us much of ourselves. We are without history, interest or spiritual life. Our thoughts are often scattered and banal. Those occasional strands that have some merit are often stunted if not still-born. Although I get the sense that all art is somewhat autobiographical it seems increasingly hard for the artist to relinquish his solipsistic subjectivity.

David Bowie, liner notes to the original Buddha of Suburbia.

The suburbs were over: they were a leaving place.

Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia.

Black Tie White Noise, though it sold in the UK (hitting #1 and producing a Top Ten single), failed to “reestablish” Bowie as a commercial presence, which is just as well, as Bowie had been greatly ambivalent about being reestablished. The record stiffed in the US, in part because Bowie’s American label, Savage, collapsed a month after its release and filed for bankruptcy six months later. In a fine turn, Savage partially blamed its collapse on the performance of an album whose sales were hurt by its collapse; they would later sue Bowie and BMG for $100 million.*

BTWN‘s respectable, mediocre performance was an ideal outcome for Bowie. He had shown that he still could sell records, but he’d also deftly avoided being roped into touring for a year to promote the album (he’d been far more relentless in pushing Tin Machine II). And for once in his late career, he was able to push on quickly, to build upon the strengths of a previous work rather than discarding it and starting yet again from scratch. He’d established a beachhead; now he was moving inland.

It began with an arranged conversation. The author Hanif Kureishi interviewed Bowie in February 1993, and at the close of their talk Kureishi mentioned he was adapting his novel The Buddha of Suburbia into a miniseries for the BBC, and asked Bowie if the production could use some period songs like “Fill Your Heart” and “Time.” Bowie agreed. Working up the nerve, Kureishi then asked if Bowie felt like contributing any original material. Bowie asked to see the tapes of Buddha, and a couple of months later, Kureishi and the series’ director Roger Michell were in Switzerland, listening to Bowie’s score.

There were two stages of Bowie’s involvement in the BBC’s Buddha. First, he composed incidental music for the series.** These were generally a series of motifs—combinations of guitar, synthesizer, trumpet, percussion, sitar—roughly a minute in length each, which Bowie tweaked based on responses from Kureishi and Michell. Kureishi found the whole business surreal: watching rough cuts of his fairly autobiographical Buddha playing on a TV monitor while the idol of his adolescence workedthe mixing desk, which was dotted with dozens of buttons, levers and swinging gauges, alongside which were banked computers.”

Roughly a month later, Bowie went back to these motifs and, relying on his usual studio jack-of-all-trades Erdal Kizilcay, began tinkering with the pieces, extending them into six- or eight-minute loops, isolating what he considered “dangerous or attractive elements” and adding overdubs and occasional vocals. After a week’s recording and another fortnight of mixing, he had a new 50-minute album.

Released in November 1993 to little notice, listed as a soundtrack album and not as a new Bowie release, distributed only in the UK and Europe and eclipsed, sales-wise, by the near-simultaneous issue of the compilation The Singles Collection, The Buddha of Suburbia was a non-existent album, a ghost record, and it was Bowie’s best album in over a decade. If there is a latter-day “great” Bowie album, it’s this one; Buddha is only now beginning to get the recognition that it always had deserved.

Buddhas in Bromley

I am considered to be a funny kind of Englishman, a new breed as it were, having emerged from two old histories. But I don’t care—Englishman I am (though not proud of it), from the South London suburbs and going somewhere. Perhaps it is the odd mixture of continents and blood, of here and there, of belonging and not, that makes me restless and easily bored. Or perhaps it was being brought up in the suburbs that did it.

Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia.

Bowie found a fellow traveler in Kureishi. Seven years Bowie’s junior, Kureishi had grown up in the same London suburb, Bromley, had attended the same school, Bromley Tech, and had followed the same trajectory as Bowie: escape to London, a professional life in the arts. Kureishi started out as a dogsbody at the Royal Court Theatre and eventually became its writer in residence and a playwright, then in the Eighties moved into making films, scripting two directed by Stephen Frears, My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.

Buddha of Suburbia, Kureishi’s first novel, published in 1990, used his Bromley adolescence as its backdrop. Like Kureishi, the novel’s protagonist, Karim “Creamy” Amir, is the son of a Pakistani father and an English mother. Spending his youth trying to escape the curse of lower-middle-class suburban life, Karim finally slips free of it, first via his father’s abandonment of his family and subsequent move to South Kensington, and then via his own success as an actor (paralleling Kureishi, Karim goes from avant-garde theater into television). One of the best novels of the Nineties, Buddha balances a minstrels’ gallery of characters (including Changez, an Indian national brought to Britain for an arranged marriage, who is obsessed with Harold Robbins and Arthur Conan Doyle; Pyke, a sexual adventurer and Svengali stage director; the would-be Marxist revolutionary Terry, who makes a living playing a cop on a TV series; and the Buddha himself, Karim’s father Haroon, a Muslim bureaucrat who becomes a Buddhist guru to earnest suburban Londoners) with acridly funny and astute observations on class, identity and pretensions (artistic, political, spiritual, sexual).

Bowie…had attended our school several years before, and there, in a group photograph in the dining hall, was his face. Boys were often found on their knees before this icon, praying to be made into pop stars and from a release from a lifetime as a motor mechanic, or a clerk in an insurance firm, or a junior architect…We had a combination of miserable expectations and wild hopes. Myself, I only had wild hopes.

Kureishi, Buddha.

When I knew I was going to be a writer, it completely changed my life because it made the present unimportant. Whatever was happening to me, the racism, the drag of being in such a violent school, were made unimportant because I lived in the future.

Kureishi, interview.

Kureishi had used Bowie as a symbolic figure from his earliest work (Bowie recordings are in his second play, 1980’s The Mother Country) and Bowie naturally figures in his novel, both as an actual cultural reference as well as an element in one of the book’s major characters, Charlie Kay (later Charlie Hero), a Bromley-born musician who molts from a would-be Ziggy Stardust local muso into a punk and ends the novel as a NYC-based rock star, a thinly-veiled Billy Idol (another Bromley kid made good).

Bowie, who had driven through his early childhood neighborhood of Brixton in 1991 and had a moment of bewildered nostalgia there, found in Kureishi’s novel and scripts a central observation that rang true to him: that the curse of a would-be artist who grows up middle-class in the suburbs is a restless and self-compromised ambition, the constant need to better yourself chased by the fear of being found out. The novel takes a generous view of this: its characters who thrive are those who manage to transform themselves in some way, like Karim, Charlie, Haroon and his lover Eva, who goes from suburban mystic hanger-on to upper-class home decorator. Even Changez winds up in a Peckham commune, happily raising his wife’s child by another man. Those who perish or wither, like Karim’s would-be fundamentalist uncle Anwar and his drunk, “respectable” aunt Jean, are those unable to discard the past.

Karim, on Thatcher: She can’t win: she’s too suburban.

Eva: We live in a suburban country.

Buddha, end of episode 4.

The rub is that this drive of self-betterment and self-transformation, this multi-colored suburban counterculture, ultimately twins with the impetus that drove Thatcherism—both novel and series end on the night of the general election in May 1979, with the main characters celebrating their new selves in an expensive Soho restaurant whose patrons are cheering the returns.

And although written in the Eighties by a man who was far from a Thatcherite, Buddha isn’t a criticism as much as it’s a bittersweet family history: showing how the ferment generated by the hippies, the communes, the suburban mystics and the Bromley punks was just part of a greater pattern, and that the economic “liberation” of Thatcher’s era wasn’t as much a reaction to them as it was a fellow radical movement, and the most successful of all. The revolution happened after all, but it was a suburban one. Kureishi’s novel and Bowie’s musical take on it are both documents from the aftermath, the notes of two survivors on the opposite shore, wondering how they had made the passage, now finding it hard to recognize the country that they had grown up in.

I felt the pleasure of pleasing others, especially as this was accompanied by money-power. I was paying for them; they were grateful; they had to be; and they could no longer see me as a failure…it was as if I’d discovered something I was good at.

Buddha.

Stockpile of residue

In the suburbs people rarely dreamed of striking out for happiness. It was all familiarity and endurance: security and safety were the reward of dullness.

Buddha.

Working on Buddha triggered something in Bowie: an introspection, a need to sort through the past. Film and book were a loving recreation of Seventies Bromley and Beckenham (e.g., Karim and Haroon stop off at the Three Tuns, where Bowie had run an Arts Lab in 1969 (see “Cygnet Committee”), and where, in the novel, Kevin Ayers is playing a dreary set, “whispering into a microphone [while] two French girls with him kept falling over the stage“). Bowie likely also found analogues of himself and people he’d known (he’d had his share of encounters with Sixties avant-garde theater) in the characters: Charlie’s magpie-like musical thievery, Haroon’s suburban mysticism, Eva’s ambition, Karim’s self-absorption and his openness to new experiences.

So for his Buddha songs, Bowie drew from what he called a “personal memory stock” of Seventies images, ranging from his teenage years in Bromley through late Seventies Berlin. He made Buddha a secret, abstract autobiography, perhaps the only one he’ll ever do.*** His songs not only directly quote from his previous work (especially the theme song, see below) but in total offered an impressionist retrospective of his past musical life, revisiting jazz, Eno’s ambient works, Philip Glass, glam, R&B, funk. Not as museum pieces or pastiches, but far more indirectly: most of the tracks on Buddha are answer songs to hazily-remembered past works, reinterpretations of the past, kept alive and contemporary, with Bowie using cues and moods from his old work and churning them up in the service of the future.

Bromley in the Buddha

Bowie’s title song was the only recording from the Buddha album that was actually used in the series: it played over the end credits of each episode (except ep. 3, which closes with an orgy scored to Ian Dury’s “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick”).

So unsurprisingly, of the Buddha songs, the title track is the one that most directly relates to the past; it’s the easiest of the set, a rewriting of and homage to Bowie’s turn-of-the-Seventies “Beckenham” songs: the guitar break from “Space Oddity” turns up (and the string of suspended, diminished and augmented acoustic guitar chords that undergird the song are very Oddity), as does the “zane zane zane” coda chorus of “All the Madmen,” while the melancholy flavor of its verses—Bowie’s voice, octave-tracked at times, circling within a cage of acoustic guitar, bass and synthesizer—calls back to the likes of “Bewlay Brothers” and “After All.”

His two-verse lyric keeps to the rough outline of Kureishi’s narrative (the book is divided into “In the Suburbs” and “In the City” sections). The opening stanza is suburban misfit angst, sung from the perspective of a figure who’s both Karim and a self-recalled Bowie: compare “Elvis is English and climbs the hills” with Bowie’s proclamation to Kureishi in their interview: “I knew at thirteen that I wanted to be the English Elvis.” (And Bowie also lived “near the railway lines,” which figure in his early “Can’t Help Thinking About Me.“) There’s a tension in the character, who’s both pushing for experience (“full of blood, loving life and all it’s got to give“) and has a middle-class kid’s terror of being different, of failing, of being shown up. The second verse finds the kid in the city at last, changing himself (or at least his clothes), liberating himself while still, in his heart, praying in suburbia for escape.

There’s tension and doubling in the song as well, with Bowie shifting from being a melancholy custodian of his folk years in the verses (the subtle arpeggiated guitars; the sweet, yearning top melodies) to a garish figure in the choruses, a revival of Anthony Newley and provincial showbiz (“down on my KNEEEES in Suh-bur-bee-yah!“). He’s reconciling two sides of his Sixties. The two solos are also different editions of Bowie: the would-be jazz saxophonist from Bromley takes the first solo, while the power-chording glam idol gets the second. (Bowie had Lenny Kravitz play lead guitar on a harsher, inferior “rock” mix of “Buddha.” Kravitz’s soloing is proficient, perfectly-played and soulless, top-rate simulacrum-music from one of the Nineties’ most pointless artists.)

Lovely and wistful, a shadowy collision of influences, “Buddha” was a minor hit in the UK and served its chorus role in the series well. But it was just the opening act for what Bowie would attempt on the Buddha album, much of which would make the “Buddha” song seem oppressively literal. As Bowie wrote in his liner notes manifesto, “a major chief obstacle to the evolution of music has been the almost redundant narrative form. To rely upon this old war-horse can only continue the spiral into British constraint of insularity. Maybe we could finally relegate the straightforward narrative to the past.

Recorded ca. June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux (Kravitz’s overdubs were recorded ca. July-September 1993, poss. at O’Henry Sound, Burbank, California). Released as a single in November 1993 (Arista/BMG 74321 177052, c/w “Dead Against It” and “South Horizon,” #35 UK)—the first track on the CD single is a mix of the original track and the Kravitz “rock mix,” both of which were included on the Buddha soundtrack. The album wasn’t released in the US until October 1995 (weirdly enough, there was a vinyl pressing made for Brazil in 1994). The BBC’s Buddha of Suburbia aired over four weeks in November 1993 and since has been released on VHS/DVD.

* Savage, in its suit, claimed that after spending $2 million in advances and video promotion expenses BMG, Bowie’s UK/European label, had “unilaterally terminated” its distribution agreement with Savage and had refused to pay $1 million that it allegedly owed to Savage. In September 1993, a cash-poor Savage said it had to return to Bowie the rights to BTWN. (Savage had laid off its entire staff on May 27, barely a month after the album’s release.) The case was dismissed and was finally put in the grave in July 1998, when the New York Court of Appeals refused Savage’s request to reinstate its lawsuit. “This drives a stake through the heart of this ridiculous case,” Bowie’s lawyer Paul LiCalsi said at the time.

** Bowie “was amazed at how little the BBC paid. Nobody had ever paid him so little in his whole life.” It’s unclear whether Bowie composed the two “punk” songs that Charlie Hero performs in the series, but if so (and I think he did), they’re pretty sharp parodies of the Sex Pistols and serve as Bowie’s belated nose-tweaking of punk. (More on this in future entries.)

*** While I’m skeptical he’ll record again, I think Bowie has at least one book in him, and hope he publishes it.

Top: Naveen Andrews as Karim in Buddha; first edition of Kureishi’s novel; original Buddha CD; “Buddha” CD single.


Nite Flights

November 14, 2012

Scott Walker, Message to David Bowie on his 50th Birthday, 1997.

I see God in the window.

David Bowie, after hearing it.

See the dwarfs and see the giants. Which one would you choose to be?

Scott Walker, “30 Century Man.”

I. Engel and Jones

I suppose he had made some slight noise of some kind or other. It would have been miraculous if he hadn’t at one time or another. And yet, haggard as he appeared, he looked always perfectly self-controlled, more than calm—almost invulnerable.

Joseph Conrad, “The Secret Sharer.”

Start by placing them across the board from each other: two queen’s bishops, rows of squares ahead of them. One is Noel Scott Engel, born in Ohio in 1943, an American who went to Britain for fame and who stayed there; the other is David Robert Jones, born in Brixton on the day before Engel’s fourth birthday, who scrabbled for fame in Britain and, once he finally got it, left for good. Jones became David Bowie, Engel became Scott Walker. Each was precocious, ambitious, beautiful. They first met around 1966 at a London nightclub, The Scotch of St. James, when Walker was a pop star and Bowie nothing but polite aspiration.

The Walker Brothers were cool, handsome Californians who sang maudlin, shabby pop. Their hit singles were all dirges. Britain, more than any other country, took them to heart, a hint that beneath the shine of Carnaby Street and the “classless” glamour society pages of David Bailey’s Box of Pin Ups there was still a weary nation that had never gotten over the war, a Britain for whom the glum fatalism of “Make it Easy on Yourself” and the doom-struck “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” rang more true than “All You Need is Love,” whose promise seemed extended only to the beautiful and young. The Walkers, though they looked like surfer gods, lived in darkened rooms: they suffered breakups, desertions and morning-after regrets, their albums were lonely hearts columns. The somber flavor of their songs suggested there was still a war on (and of course, there was—one reason the Walkers had left the US was to avoid the draft).



Like the spider-egg memory cruelly programmed into the replicant’s memory in Blade Runner, the Walker Brothers felt real but did not actually exist in any recongisable reality.

Anthony Reynolds, “The Hollow Men.”

Years before Bowie would create a “plastic” rock star, there was the Walker Brothers (not brothers, none of them really named Walker), who didn’t play on their records, who used different backing bands for touring and TV appearances (live, Gary Leeds used paper sticks, the actual drummer parked backstage). As Reynolds wrote, the only “real” Walker Brothers were Scott and John’s voices, “two solo singers sharing a b(r)and name…[whose] LPs were the works of a mythical beast, spawned and constructed under the laboratory conditions of Philips Studios.

Not that it mattered. By 1966, the Walkers’ UK fan club was larger than the Beatles’ and the Stones’; Mick Jagger, sizing up the competition, tried to start a feud by flicking cigarette butts down on Walker at a nightclub. Lulu, besotted with Scott herself, recalled being unable to sleep while on tour with the Walkers because shrieking girls had the hotels under siege. The Walkers’ mid-Sixties was a reenactment of Beatlemania in miniature, more ritualized and more violent, with Walkers shows condensed to a half-hour of screams and gutter battles. One night Leeds saw a girl covered in blood from head to foot—she had crawled through a shattered window to get into the club—and he remembered another girl who wouldn’t let go of John’s hair even after being punched in the face.

It had happened by chance. John Maus and Scott Engel, who’d met in the early Sixties, got a minor hit in America and were working clubs on the Sunset Strip. John sang lead; Scott, his gloomy baritone suiting his role as bassist, was second string. Recording a new song, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill’s “Love Her,” that had been written for the Righteous Brothers, the producer Nick Venet suggested a deeper-voiced lead for the Bill Medley role, and Scott became the front man. Leeds, a drummer that he and John knew, came back from a British tour with PJ Proby with UK contacts and a proposition. The three, christened the Walker Brothers, flew to London in February 1965. Four months later, they had a manager, a record contract and hits, starting with “Love Her.”

Scott had worked in professional music since his boyhood: he was making demos and singles in his mid-teens and had been a protege of the singer Eddie Fisher. It was a life of pointed ambition, reminiscent of another boy in Bromley who started cutting singles at age 17. But unlike Bowie, Walker had only a professional interest in R&B and rock ‘n roll (with the exception of the disco-tinged Nite Flights, Walker’s oeuvre is an alternate history in which “white” popular music had almost zero African-American influence). His idol was Frank Sinatra. Hearing that Sinatra had built up his lungs by staying underwater for minutes, Walker would try to hold his breath for a block when walking in London.

His was a wary fame. He never had a period like Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era when he savored the absurd peak of his celebrity. Instead he escaped whenever he could, enisling himself in movie theaters, where he’d watch four films in a row, or turning up at nightclubs at 1 AM and sitting by himself; he took Valium to bring himself down, uppers and vodka to get him through sessions and shows. Encouraged by his manager to write B-sides for some publishing royalties, Walker found his ideal form of escape: his songs, from the start, fabricated worlds for him to hide away in. In December 1966 he had a breakthrough, with “Archangel,” built on a Bach-inspired pipe organ figure that Scott recorded at the Odeon Cinema in Leicester Square (a moviegoer’s whim indulged), and the kitchen-sink drama of “Mrs. Murphy.” In these two songs, a B-side and an EP track, was the breadth of his imagined, inherited London: the gossipy flavor of life in a two-up two-down, where angels sometimes appear at the windows.

Walker became a dedicated expatriate: Sixties London, he later said, really was the London he had dreamed of in America, the London of Ealing Studios films, of eccentricity and “making do,” with vaguely Continental daydreams as its mild opiate. He became a British citizen in the Seventies, though living in Holland much of the time, and his attitude towards his native country has been coldness tinged with contempt. An idealized, affected “British” sensibility colored his music. Even the Walker Brothers albums were structured like provincial pantomime revues: a Matt Monro-style ballad followed by a back-to-the-Sunset Strip rocker like “Land of 1,000 Dances,” a country-style number leading into one of Scott’s compositions (a bizarre piece of sequencing on Images sandwiches Walker’s “Orpheus” between anemic covers of “Stand By Me” and “Blueberry Hill”).

Much of the music, even the #1 singles, sounded slightly off, inaccurate translations. “Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine” was producer Johnny Franz and a pack of British session players (including Alan Parker, who later played on “Rebel Rebel”) going for the full-bore Phil Spector sound, with Hal Blaine style “on the four” drums, “Holland Tunnel” reverb and instruments stacked upon each other like folding chairs. But they didn’t quite pull it off: “Sun” has so much blear and murk that Scott drowns in the mix, but the track’s also thin-sounding in places; it’s a drywall of sound.

Still, even echoes have echoes. Some of Bowie’s 1966 Pye singles, with their Tony Hatch productions, seem crafted to mimic the gimcrack cathedral tone of the Walkers’ singles. He and Walker were in different worlds: you can imagine Scott’s face on a magazine cover at the Clapham cafe where Bowie once wrote a bitter little jibe called “Join the Gang,” which he couldn’t. Where Bowie was a footnote, Walker was getting enseamed in British pop legend. When the gangster Ronnie Kray shot a rival at the Blind Beggar on Whitechapel Road, one bullet from Kray’s Mauser hit the jukebox, causing the record playing to skip: the sun ain’t gonna shine…sun ain’t gonna shine…

II. Billy Balloon and Major Tom

Scott Walker, Amsterdam.
David Bowie, Amsterdam.
Scott Walker, My Death.
David Bowie, My Death (live).

Contrary to public opinion, I hated cabaret. In the course of four years, I mentioned it to David once. That was when he was broke and unable to feed himself. Cabaret? Not likely. It killed Scott Walker.

Kenneth Pitt, David Bowie’s former manager.

Caller: Is [“Plastic Palace People”] about what I think it is?

Scott Walker: Uh, yeah.

Capitol Radio interview, 1978.

It’s a well-established arc in pop: the teen idol grows (cracks) up. Idols are a savvier lot now, and managers have gotten far better at handling the transition, but it remains a treacherous crossing, one that usually demands some sort of declaration of independence. Scott Walker’s was extremist. Consider if Justin Bieber put out a record where he sang about losing his virginity in an “mobile army whorehouse,” recalled “the queer lieutenant who slapped our asses as if we were fags” and “my first case of gonorrhea” and closed with “one day I’ll cut my legs off or burn myself alive.”

Walker went to the Playboy Club one night in 1967 and met a German woman who worked there. Back at her place, she drank Pernod and played Jacques Brel records for him, translating the songs as they played. He fell in love, not with her. By chance, soon after that evening Walker’s friend Andrew Oldham told him that Mort Shuman had just made a translation of Brel songs for a stage revue, some of which had been recorded for a promo disc. Walker found this acetate, which had “Amsterdam” and “Jackie” and “Mathilde” on it, and, in his words, “ran with it.” Brel was his liberator, giving Walker cover, some exotica and notoriety.

So began the “shabby ’60s solo epics: fantasias of crumpled velvet” (Tom Ewing) that were the four Scott records: fervid Brel covers, MOR schlock, occasional country/folk forays and the Walker-penned songs, the latter increasingly more “lieder” than pop, with Walker disdaining hooks and choruses in favor of wandering through his endless, spiraling verses. His songs, sometimes literally art movies remembered in music (“The Seventh Seal“), were split-screen compositions (“Plastic Palace People”), flashbacks, slow-motion reveries. He peopled his lyrics with children and angels (and one in the same), tramps and toy soldiers (there was a touch of the black velvet painting in Scott’s songs of the period), squandered dreamers rotting away on fire escapes and terraces. His characters, refracted through his own brooding persona, seemed poisoned by memories, left motionless (the first side of Scott 1 is a set of remembered lost girls—Mathilde,Angelica, Lucy Brown, Joanna—that naturally concludes with ode to death). The Scotts are singular, as much out of their time as they reek of it: Scott 2 remains one of the stranger #1 albums ever released.

Late Sixties Scott can seem a schizophrenic character, hosting a lite-pop TV revue for the BBC while singing about prostitutes and archangels on his gnomic records. For some he was a tortured artist, packaged by his label and manager as a reluctant version of Englebert Humperdinck, who slipped in a few subversive masterpieces on records marketed to middle-aged bourgeois. For others he was a teen idol with bad taste, a ghastly poseur who took a sniggering adolescent pleasure in singing Brel’s bawdy lyrics. (He was easy to detest: Nik Cohn called Walker “top heavy and maudlin” in 1968 and Robert Christgau later threw up in print: “purely godawful…Anthony Newley without the voice muscles…a male Vera Lynn for late bloomers who found Paul McCartney too R&B.”)

Sure, Walker’s records are the sort of thing the couple in Paul Simon’s “The Dangling Conversation” would have on their hi-fi, and his lyrics can easily venture into Rod McKuen waters. He seemed an older man in spirit, a throwback whose main vices, booze and pills, were classic Hollywood’s, and whose interests were those of a graduate student ca. 1957: Camus, Bergman films, Bartok. The Scotts are the refined sound of the aspiring middlebrow of the Sixties, a tragic figure easy to mock today. A lost world of Cabernet, mime, mild Buddhism, poetry readings, “action” theater. Which, as it happens, was also the world of Bowie and his girlfriend, the dancer Hermione Farthingale, in 1968.

During the Scott years, Bowie was in the wilderness. His one LP had flopped and Deram stopped releasing his singles. And in 1968, a year when he didn’t release any music and nearly abandoned pop music, he discovered Walker. As with Walker and Brel, a woman was the ambassador. The songwriter Lesley Duncan had dated Walker and later briefly took up with Bowie, and Bowie found the latter’s records in her flat on Redington Road. Bowie was irritated at first, Walker seeming to mock him with his glamorous brooding Philips LP covers, but when he finally played the records he was entranced.

At first, mainly with Brel (Walker had chosen Brel wisely, as a carnival barker to get potential listeners into the tent). Bowie soon tried to make “Amsterdam” and “My Death” his own, singing them accompanied only by his 12-string acoustic guitar, but all he managed to do was cover Walker. The actual Brel, an agitated Fleming who expectorated his songs in performance, is hardly to be heard in Bowie’s various versions—Bowie’s Brel is just a shadow of Scott’s. Seeking to evade Walker, he only channeled him.

Then, through Walker’s own songs, Bowie began to craft a new persona to inhabit. He had forgotten he’d ever been a Mod and, in the words of his then-partner John Hutchinson, was now “into softer things.” Scott’s songs are in the sediment of Bowie’s late Sixties: in the bedroom of “hessian and wood” where Bowie and Hermione once stayed; in the paper-strewn rooms of the scholar who lives above an Austrian in “Conversation Piece”. And in the song that finally made Bowie? Is there some of Walker’s growing isolation and coldness in “Space Oddity,” in Major Tom’s desire to slip free from the world’s tether and just float off somewhere, like a balloon?

It’s easy to go too far in this game. There were other competing influences at work on Bowie, and Bowie’s arrangers/producers Gus Dudgeon and Tony Visconti were of a different cast than Walker’s, who were generally of an older generation. Dudgeon and Visconti were more pop-oriented, working in service to the song, favoring moody sweeps of ‘celli, using strings and horns to underscore top melodies, and while open to innovations like the Mellotron and Stylophone, kept them as secondary players in the mix. Nowhere on a Bowie record of the period is there anything like Wally Stott’s coagulation of strings, a semi-tonal quivering between G, G-sharp and F-sharp, that hangs like a storm cloud in Walker’s masterpiece “It’s Raining Today.”

It was this sound—a suspension between tonality and atonality, release and tension, fear and longing—which Walker had sought since he began making records (Derek Walmsley: “each instrument is locked into a hovering circle of vibrato, like bees moving in swarm formation“) and he would reuse it for decades to come, building and coloring his songs with variations on these shifts, with strings phasing in and out of key, players rolling out strings of harmonic and ghost notes that suddenly cohere into great clumps of sound. (On Tilt, three decades later, Walker would try to create “new chords” by having his players play major and minor chords simultaneously, aiming for “a yin and yang thing,” he said.)

The sound of “Raining Today” suggested that Scott was delving further inward. His lyrics grew more obscure, his art movie songs were increasingly meant for him alone, as if he was screening dailies of his dreams. After the triumph of Scott 3, Walker even discarded Brel, disposing of one last crutch. He went off the map as his audience fell away. There’s a telling moment in the Walker documentary 30 Century Man, when, as part of a transition montage, there’s a cut to a late 1969 issue of Melody Maker. On the right-hand side of the two-page spread is a photograph of a beaming hippie Bowie in an article about his hit single. On the opposing page, a dour Walker illustrates a piece about the poor sales of Scott 4, which Philips would delete in a year. Sun (machine) rising, sun setting.

You’ve been a wonderful audience. Now it’s time for me to go away.

Scott Walker, at the end of his first BBC TV show, 1969.

III. Ziggy and the Moviegoer

It bothered me that I couldn’t write a record. Sure. But I felt…it’s just as important to exist as write…Existence is worth everything. So I wasn’t dead, you know?

Scott Walker, interview, early 1990s.

Had my double vanished as he had come? But of his coming there was an explanation, whereas his disappearance would be inexplicable….

Conrad.

In the early Seventies, David Bowie finally became a star. You likely know the story: Ziggy Stardust, Ronson, the Spiders, Angela, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Tony Defries, Mike Garson, “Starman”, “Jean Genie.” Bowie still sang the Walker-Brel songs on stage but he’d long since dispensed any Scott-inspired production cues and lyrical influences, as though he’d stuffed away Walker in a box of teenage memorabilia when moving house.

As for Walker, he was hiding in plain sight. He still put out records, sometimes twice a year. The Moviegoer, Stretch, Any Day Now, We Had It All. These albums seemed intended to be remaindered, meant for dusty afterlives in charity shops and garage sales and church basements. One wonders who bought them (there weren’t many—none of the albums really sold). A fan from the Walker Brothers days, now married with children, who spied the still-handsome face on a LP in Debenhams and bought it out of some weak nostalgic obligation? A cultist, poring through the liner notes, looking for clues? Your grandmother?

Walker was blocked, creatively, and pushed by his manager to only do covers, so he grubbed out albums to meet his contracts and support his family, sometimes cutting all of his vocals in a single day, going through a bottle or two of vodka in the booth. He sang anything that he was given, sang it professionally and at times even beautifully, but with little artistry, little trace of his own interpretation. It was though he was demoing songs for other singers to do something with. Amanda Petrusich argues that Walker’s move into country music came as he was renouncing his citizenship, at the height of Watergate, and that singing country was a way for Walker to make some sort of reckoning with his past (he said in an interview that most of his family back home had voted for Nixon). It’s a solid enough theory as any. What’s more unnerving is the idea that Walker simply had no motives, had no strategies, but was just using music as a base currency. As Andy Zax said of these records, “their emptiness is startling.”

The connection could have been severed here: Walker drifting off into genteel nothingness, Bowie far off on his own path. But the line was still open on Bowie’s end. In late 1973, with the Spiders gone, with Bowie forced back onto himself and clawing his way out of a trap he’d made (he was trying to salvage at least three failed musicals), Bowie found himself listening to Walker again.

The first evidence on Diamond Dogs is a parody of Walker’s “Any Day Now” that briefly surfaces in the murk of “Future Legend.” Then, a few tracks later, comes “Sweet Thing/Candidate.” The ghoulish basso profondo that Bowie used to open “Sweet Thing” sounds like some resurrected, blighted Walker, Walker as some croaking Baron Samedi figure, pacing through Bowie’s Hunger City, looking for rough trade. It was a Walker that had never existed, one that seems instead to have been generated in Bowie’s shadow-memory of Scott’s old songs, and it’s a more frightening, vivid figure than Scott ever managed to play on his Philips LPs: a Scott purged of his middlebrow crooner affectations, clarified to base instinct and dark camp. The zombified Walker crops up again, as a lesser flavor, in some of Bowie’s other mid-Seventies songs (“Station to Station” comes to mind). It’s one possible ending: Walker ending up as one of Bowie’s characters, yet another influence absorbed. Instead, one day Walker woke up.

IV. The Electrician and the Lodger

David Bowie, he’s a very smart guy. He comes up with the goods and he makes sure of delivery right down the line. I thought, ‘Shit, if he can do it, so can I.’

Scott Walker.

Nite Flights (The Walker Brothers, 1978).

The Walker Brothers reunited in 1974, for lack of anything else to do. They got a minor hit, a cover of Tom Rush’s “No Regrets,” and stalled out. Their label GTO collapsed but there was enough money for one last record, so the Walkers figured they’d cut some of their own songs for once, using the budget to bring in some top session men (including Alan Parker and the guitarist “Big Jim” Sullivan, who’d played on hundreds of British rock records, including David Bowie).

So far, this has been a one-way tale: Bowie watching, interpreting, coveting, acquiring Walker. Now Walker, at last, was listening to Bowie, sifting through Station to Station, Low and especially the just-released “Heroes,” which Walker brought to the studio, playing it for his partners and the studio musicians (he also wanted everyone to subscribe to Gramophone magazine). The engineer Steve Parker told Anthony Reynolds that “Heroes” was “the reference album when we were making Nite Flights…we could have been more adventurous, maybe. If we’d had an Eno character in there, it would have been even more stunning, I think.”

What did Walker get out of Bowie’s “Berlin” albums? They were records of a man, pushed to his limits, who broke himself up and tried to piece himself together again, one who seemed intent on killing his former personae; Walker, after years of acquiescent mediocrity, of self-imposed artistic silence, was trying to write again, trying to make the step he felt he should have made after Scott 4. The Bowie records are also an exile’s albums, their creator roaming from Los Angeles to France to Berlin, which a fellow expatriate like Walker could appreciate. And more cynically, as Walker’s quote above suggests, he saw in Bowie someone to whom it had seemingly come easily, a man who dabbled in art rock but still got hits, one who seemed to have stolen the freedom to go where he willed. Remember that Walker wasn’t the mysterious avant-garde figure in 1978 that he’s since become. He was a pro singer who’d put out a lousy record for nearly every year of the Seventies, and whose vaunted Sixties LPs had more than their fair share of songs that could have been a Blood, Sweat and Tears album. He could still think in commercial terms, and he likely did here.

Nite Flights was front-loaded with Scott’s songs (though his fingerprints are everywhere on the record—as Reynolds wrote, the phased tubular bells and harmonized snare on Gary Leeds’ “Den Haague” are very Bowie/Eno/Visconti-inspired), which are sequenced perfectly. The opener “Shutout” is a first shot at Bowie, a reconsidering of “Blackout” with a taste of sharp violence, while “Fat Mama Kick” seems to be Walker taking Eno’s measure, writing a song that Eno could’ve fit on Taking Tiger Mountain or Here Come the Warm Jets. It’s a dark, extravagant goof, with Walker again, as with “Archangel,” busting the budget to record a colossal pipe organ (in this case, the Royal Albert Hall’s). “Nite Flights” (see below) is a maneuver where Walker met Bowie head-on.

He closed the quartet with “The Electrician,” where he pushed beyond Bowie and Eno, opening an avenue they had never considered. It begins with Walker’s favored dissonant string chords, with Walker, when he appears, groaning and bellowing as if he’d heard Bowie’s incarnation of him on “Sweet Thing” and thought, “oh, you think you can do this?“. Then, with the chorus, Walker strangles his professional voice. Considering his moneymaker baritone suspect, that it lulled the listener to sleep, he altered his phrasing and timbre, now singing lines in a straining, desperate tone that, like his love of consonant/dissonant strings, hung between being sharp and on the note. It suited the lyric, a love song about American complicity in Central American torture regimes.

There was nothing of its like in 1978. Brilliantly released as a single, “The Electrician” proffered a future that no one dared to take (Eno, decades later, groused about the cowardice of young bands who never went beyond “The Electrician,” but were just content to imitate him or Roxy Music or Bowie.)

In late 1978, Eno brought Nite Flights to Montreux, where he and Bowie had started recording Lodger. Bowie was stunned. One can’t blame him. Imagine if a great stone face to whom you’ve been making offerings for years suddenly rumbles up a response, in an approximation of your voice.

So Lodger was, in part, Bowie scrambling to acknowledge a revived Walker, from the obvious reference “African Night Flight” to “Look Back in Anger,” a song full of cold angels (at a time when Walker no longer seemed interested in them) and whose phrasing had a trace of Bowie’s old Scott imitation. But this was superficial. Bowie stewed, considered new responses. “The Electrician” proved such a challenge that Bowie played it for nearly twenty years, then all but rewrote it as “The Motel.” (But that’s a story for later.)

V. Nite Flights

Nite Flights (Bowie).
Nite Flights (Bowie, video w/introduction).
Nite Flights (The Tonight Show, 1993).
Nite Flights (Moodswings Back to Basics Mix).
Nite Flights (Bowie, live, 1996).

In the early Eighties, when Bowie pieced himself out to the world, Walker, after the promise of Nite Flights, seemed to leave it. It was here, not in his workingman’s Seventies, when he truly began to vanish. He had ceased to exist in the music press. None of his records get a mention in the Rolling Stone Record Guide of 1983, or in the Trouser Press record guides of the era; he merits a single line in a two-graph Walker Brothers bio in the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of 1983 and isn’t mentioned at all in RS‘ 1986 History of Rock & Roll. Nite Flights, rather than marking some startling rebirth, instead seemed his last roll of the dice before leaving the room.

Then Walker put out another record, Climate of Hunter. This would establish the pattern of his late work: silence, oblivion, then a new album. Released in spring 1984, a few months before Bowie’s Tonight, Climate made Bowie’s corporate nadir LP even more appalling. Climate was an actual adult pop record, Walker working with contemporary musicians and producers (Billy Ocean and Mark Knopfler, among others), but keeping his own counsel, to the point of perversity (the Ocean track, the most pop-appealing song on the record which even got a video, didn’t get a title).

For the rest of the Eighties, when Walker was nowhere to be found, Bowie endured his own public set of lost years, reduced to making records for the sake of it, losing himself, trying to purge his way back with Tin Machine. Finally, in 1992, looking for some anchorage, casting about for fresh influences or just any means to move ahead, he finally decided to take Walker on. He covered “Nite Flights.”

As with his take on Morrissey’s “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday,” there was a touch of vanity in Bowie’s choice: “Nite Flights” is the closest that Walker was ever influenced by Bowie’s music, from the “Heroes” callbacks in the lyric (“we could be gods“) to its production and arrangement, which has the taut fluency of Bowie’s great Murray-Alomar-Davis band (the hi-hat, mostly played by Peter Van Hooke (and Frank Gibson here) is the unsung hero of Nite Flights, mixed as prominently as the lead vocal).

Bowie’s cover took the fractured disco of the Walkers and smoothed it out, deepening the song, gave it a steadier foundation (with Nile Rodgers’ fine rhythm guitar, starting in the second chorus, providing some friction). Just as with their Johnny Franz Sixties singles, the Walkers record, despite its pedigreed cast, had a feel of being scraped together at short notice, trying to approximate a sound they’d heard elsewhere. Bowie made “Nite Flights” a thick curtain of music, lessening the dramatics (Walker makes the out-of-key change to B-flat on “blood-lite” seem to portend something awful, while Bowie just breezes by it). Where Walker strains, gasps, acts as though he’s only got a few moments before something terrible happens (is he the air, about to crash? both he and Bowie shared a fear of flying), Bowie sings the bizarre, violent lyric (“the dark dug up by dogs!…the raw meat fist you choke!…broken necks!“) as if it was a love song, making it even more surreal, delivering each phrase with a poise that makes Walker seem like a madman. Bowie takes the first octave leap—“it’s so COLD!“—without blinking, where Walker seemed to bleed while doing it.

Covering Walker shook something loose in Bowie, reset his ambitions, made him commit to one last push into the avant-garde, to try to give audiences not what they wanted but what they didn’t know they needed. And in 1995, as Bowie was putting the final touches on Outside, a record that Reeves Gabrels has said was made under the influence of Walker, Walker popped out of the void with Tilt, a record so abrasive and baffling and ahead of its time, that it made Outside seem like a pop record. (Again, more later.)

VI. Walker and Bowie

I was in time to catch an evanescent glimpse of my white hat left behind to mark the spot where the secret sharer of my cabin and of my thoughts, as though he were my second self, had lowered himself into the water to take his punishment: a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny.

Conrad.

Starting with Nite Flights and on through Tilt and The Drift (and, from what I’ve heard of it, Bish Bosch), Walker eradicated himself, exiled his past lives. There remains some continuity of sound (the dissonant/consonant strings, while a ghost of the flugelhorn in “Orpheus” appears in “Cue”, and a few basic lyric images: he’s still obsessed with the movies—“Clara” began with his memories of seeing Mussolini’s corpse on a newsreel as a child) but otherwise Walker has, more than anyone else of his generation, hived off his past, has made it of no relevance to him. He’ll never revisit his former work, nor flog it on stage nor give it deluxe CD/DVD reissue treatments (Walker has said he’s never listened to any of his records since he’s made them). The tremulous Anglophile of the Scott records, the jaundiced pop singer of Climate of Hunter, are well in the grave. The Walker of today keeps to the edges, looking for margins within margins. The Drift, in 2006, found him hiring top percussionists to punch slabs of beef and rub thimbles across wooden blocks. He sings his inscrutable lyrics, hinting at future fascisms, ethnic cleansings, plagues, in a voice that he seems to keep purging and bleeding; he’s become increasingly medieval.

Bowie, after his last trek into the attempted unknown in the mid-Nineties, fell back into his past. At the turn of the century, as we’ll see soon enough in this survey, he revived some of his oldest songs, remade them, like an older man reading aloud some faded letters; he drafted wills, put old debts to right, arranged his estates, then went out by playing his old music with fervor, as though he was a young man again. And he praised Walker effusively, again and again, his fandom ripening with age. Hearing Walker merely wish him a happy 50th birthday left Bowie close to tears. Whereas with Walker, whenever he mentioned Bowie (not often) there was simply gracious reserve, the quiet complimentary manner of an artist to his occasional patron.

So add up the sums. Walker, apart from a few Walker Brothers hits, has never produced work that a mass audience has loved, in the way that they have loved “Changes” or “Life on Mars?” or “Heroes,” or will still run to a dance floor whenever “Blue Jean” or “Let’s Dance” comes on. Bowie, despite his best intentions, was a populist at heart. As Lloyd Cole wrote about Low, there was always too much with Bowie, too much melody, too much love of pop, too much need to be heard, so that he never could cram himself down into being just an “artist” (it’s akin to how Bowie never could make a coherent “concept album,” as much as he hinted at it). Walker began standing in the center, a treasured photograph on a teenage girl’s bedroom wall, and wormed his way out, seeking nothing, throwing away everything that he once carried, occasionally sending some new transmission from somewhere far off the grid, seemingly not caring whether it even gets heard.

Consider two planets in the same system. One has been more favored by the sun, a rich world with a host of lesser satellites that wheel around it. The other is a smaller, less hospitable, furtive planet, which goes on long elliptical orbits, vanishing for years then appearing again in the sky without warning. Sometimes the two have been in sync, pulling on the other, eclipsing each other. But their dance is over. The larger world has stopped moving; it just hangs suspended now, having become a preservation of its better days. The lesser orb goes on its way.

In the next two months, Scott Walker will turn seventy and will release a new record, one which appears to be as weird and ominous as his other late works, while David Bowie is out of the game. His name only surfaces in quickly-disproven rumors of a return, to the stage or studio (a deluxe boxed set of Low is about all we can hope for). It’s a shame that their story, which had run for so long, through so many editions, is over, but all stories end: you know that. It was fine while it lasted. Secret partners, rivals, sounding, sounded, carriers, receivers, exiles, electricians. Engel and Jones, Bowie and Walker.

The Walkers recorded “Nite Flights” in February 1978 at Scorpio Sound, UK. Bowie’s version was cut ca. summer/autumn 1992 at the Power Station and/or Mountain Studios, Montreux. A remix was released as a UK promo 12″ single (Arista HOME 1) and later included on the reissued Black Tie White Noise.

Sources: The Wire‘s recently-issued essay compilation No Regrets: Writings on Scott Walker (edited by Rob Young) was essential. I’m particularly indebted to Derek Walmsley on Scott 3 and 4, Amanda Petrusich on Walker’s wilderness years, Ian Penman’s meander through Walker’s befuddled early Seventies and Damon Krukawski on Climate of Hunter. Anthony Reynolds’ The Impossible Dream is a first-rate bio: many quotes and facts are taken from it, as well as from the Bowie-produced 30 Century Man documentary (Kijak, 2006). Thanks to @Discographies (Andy Zax) for entertaining theories and offering insights and music.

Top to bottom: Scott Walker in 1966, 1969, 1972, 1984, 1995, 2006; Bowie in 1966, 1969, 1973, 1977, 1984, 1994, 2006.


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.