I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday

October 26, 2012

Cosmic Dancer (Morrissey and Bowie, live, 1991).
I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday (Morrissey).
I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday (Morrissey, live, 1992).
I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday (Bowie).
Drive-In Saturday (Morrissey, live, 2000.)
I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday (Morrissey, live, 2005).

The Last of the International Playboys are Bowie, Bolan, Devoto and me.

Do you see similarities between yourself and Bowie?

What, the living Bowie or the present dead one? The living Bowie, there are some, yes. Yes, I do see similarities.

Morrissey, NME interview, February 1989.

Morrissey is what would have happened if Bertie Wooster and David Bowie had a son.

Ken Tucker, “Alternative Scenes: Britain,” The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock ‘n’ Roll, 1993.

In the autumn of 1980, Steven Morrissey began exchanging letters with a fellow music enthusiast, a Scot named Robert Mackie. The 21-year-old Morrissey was holed up in his room in Manchester, reading, obsessing over Ealing comedies, Sandie Shaw records and Joan Crawford films, writing letters to the music press. In his letters to Mackie, Morrissey rubbished the former’s musical tastes (Kate Bush is “unbearable,” “all electronic music is a sad accident”) and rebuked him for never having seen David Bowie live. (He conceded that Mackie owned far more Bowie albums, but anyone could buy a record.) Granting Bowie the capitalized pronoun once reserved for gods and kings, Morrissey noted that he’d seen “Him” perform 14 times between 1972 and 1976 alone.

And to Morrissey, Bowie once had been a god or a king. “He was so important to me because his vocal melodies were so strong and his appearance was so confrontational,” Morrissey recalled in 2009. “Manchester then was full of bootboys and skinheads and macho-macho thugs, but I saw Bowie’s appearance as the ultimate bravery. To me, it took guts to be David Bowie, not to be a shit-kicking skinhead in a pack.” When Morrissey bought the “Starman” single in the summer of 1972, he “fell in love with the potency of the pop moment…the pop moment in my life was the only thing that ever spoke to me.”

A decade later, Morrissey met Bowie for the first time in Manchester, backstage at a “Sound + Vision” show in August 1990. By that time, of course, Morrissey had founded and disbanded a group that had played the same role for disaffected Eighties teenagers as Bowie had for Morrissey, and he was becoming a pop star on his own, with four UK top 10 hits. And one night in June 1991, as Morrissey was playing the Inglewood Forum in Los Angeles, Bowie came on stage to sing T. Rex’s “Cosmic Dancer” with him. The crowd went fanatic: you can barely hear Bowie and Morrissey above the din in recordings. It seemed that Bowie was anointing Morrissey as heir presumptive of glam, using a Marc Bolan song as coronation hymn. The succession continued in 1993, when Bowie covered a Morrissey song on Black Tie White Noise, with, again, another glam legend roped into the proceedings. Bowie sang “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday,” a song originally produced and arranged by Mick Ronson.

There was sly dig in Bowie’s song choice, as “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday” was, in his view, Morrissey’s attempt at a Ziggy Stardust-era belter; in particular, “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” whose coda saxophone arrangement Morrissey might as well have sampled. “It occurred to me that he was spoofing one of my earlier songs, and I thought, I’m not going to let him get away with that,” Bowie later said.

Bowie repaid the favor by singing “Someday” in a pitch of sustained grandiosity. He said he wanted to do “Someday” as though he was performing it on the Diamond Dogs tour in 1974: decadent, fervent, unhinged, slick (Brett Anderson rightly noted that Bowie was channeling Johnnie Ray again). However, the resulting track lacked the spirit of camp, the bite of parody. It was leaden and forced, its centerpiece a dull guitar solo by Wild T. Springer and its mix accorded great glops of overbearing chorus vocals and horns. Bowie’s vocal didn’t measure up to his intended latter-day Ziggy Stardust: you could hear him strain sometimes, with his vocal fills before the closing “wait, don’t lose faith” especially gruesome. Slowing the song down to a thudding 4/4 instead of the whirling 12/8 of the Morrissey original only served to spotlight the track’s shortcomings.

Bowie intended “Someday” to be high camp, a silly goose of a silly song (in his video, Bowie holds a cigarette lighter aloft and solemnly sways his arms during the guitar solo), and as such it was a cynical misreading. Morrissey’s track begins and closes with long stretches of static and drifting pieces of radio flotsam, with the song proper suddenly appearing over a minute in, briefly shimmering into range and then fading into the void again, as though it was a broadcast sent from behind enemy lines. Its tone is wholly sincere, its message one of constancy and commitment, a pledge to adolescents of any age that they will somehow get through it (it seemed Morrissey’s take on “You’ll Never Walk Alone” as much as it was a Bowie tribute). Like the young Bowie, Morrissey had been a professional fan before he was a star, and his work was one long negotiation with and tribute to his fans. At the end of the “Everyday Is Like Sunday” video, the mousy-haired anomic heroine finds Morrissey through her spyglass and sees that he’s wearing her face on his T-shirt: she’s his idol as much as he’s hers. If “Someday” was absurd, as Bowie seemingly thought it was, it was because pop music itself, the promises it made and the beliefs it offered, was absurd.

Morrissey said he loved Bowie’s cover, and for a time the two kept up their mutual admiration society. This culminated in late 1995, when Bowie asked Morrissey to open for him on a round of UK and European dates. From the start there was tension, from the publicity materials (which touted Morrissey as a “very special guest” but only featured Bowie’s photograph) to sound check times. Morrissey occasionally opened sets with “Good evening, we are your support group” and contended with hecklers: critics found his performances both enervated and desperate-seeming. The Morrissey fans (“a crowd, that is, of precisely 11 rows deep and 20 seats across,” Melody Maker‘s Jennifer Nine sharply noted) would typically pack off as Bowie’s set began, and it didn’t help the atmosphere in the stands that Bowie was playing few old hits and intended to assault audiences with his new industrial-inspired music (as we’ll see in early 2013).

Morrissey said the breaking point was Bowie’s conceit (used with Nine Inch Nails earlier in the tour) that during Morrissey’s last song, members of his group would slowly walk off stage and be replaced by Bowie’s band, until as a climax Morrissey would go into a Bowie song and be joined by Bowie, sweeping in from upstage. Bowie thought it would make for great theater; Morrissey saw it as a diva move that would deprive his fans of a proper closing number. [This story is possibly dubious, see comments.]

So after only nine shows, Morrissey left the tour before an Aberdeen gig, allegedly without informing Bowie. A few years later, Morrissey was still seething, grousing that Bowie was a has-been and a charlatan. “You have to worship at the temple of David when you become involved with him.” In another interview, he said Bowie “is no longer David Bowie at all. Now he gives people what he thinks will make them happy, and they’re yawning their heads off. And by doing that, he is not relevant. He was only relevant by accident.” (Bowie, always the gentleman or at least one more press-savvy, kept mum, only saying that Morrissey had gone to a sound-check in Scotland, then got into a car and left, “and that’s the last we heard of him.”)

It was an ugly end to what had once seemed a graceful dialogue between generations, a volley between fans and former fans and idols. But perhaps the root of the break lies back in Bowie’s grotesque, vain interpretation of Morrissey’s song. The two reportedly never spoke again. While Morrissey seems to have made some sort of peace with Bowie, at least as a “living” memory, as he covered “Drive-In Saturday” on stage in 2000 and 2007, some recent snarky tweets by Duncan Jones suggest there may still be some sharp feelings on the Bowie side of the fence.

Moz sources: John H. Baker, “In the Spirit of ’69: Morrissey and the Skinhead Cult,” collected in Morrissey: Fandom, Representations and Identities; David Bret, Morrissey: Scandal & Passion; the “pop moment” quote is from the Irish Times, 1999. The complete Mackie/Morrissey correspondence is scanned here (there are plenty of DB references to be found, including Morrissey signing off a letter with “I’m unhappy, hope you’re unhappy too.”)

Recorded ca. summer-fall 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station NYC. Released in April 1993 on Black Tie White Noise.

Top: Les deux dames, in happier days, ca. 1991; Lucette Henderson, moody teenage dream girl and star of M’s “Sunday” video, 1989.


Miracle Goodnight

October 22, 2012

Miracle Goodnight.
Miracle Goodnight (video).
Miracle Goodnight (2 Chord Philly Mix).
Miracle Goodnight (Make Believe Mix).

A happy contrast to the leaden “Black Tie White Noise,” the follow-up single “Miracle Goodnight” is the cleverest and most moving of Bowie’s wedding songs, a minimalist production on an often dense and cluttered record.

Built on a dual-synthesizer riff (allegedly inspired by a frog chorus Bowie had once heard in Bali) that provides the scaffolding for the verses/choruses and the two spoken asides,1 “Miracle” never extends too far outward in sound, with its accompaniment reduced to the synthesizer hook, a few secondary synthesizer colors (like the long-held notes that sing overhead in the second verse), sets of electronic and live bass/drums and a few low-mixed traces of saxophone. “Miracle” is the closest that Rodgers came on Black Tie White Noise to the stripped-down precision of his Chic masterpieces (including his marvelous guitar solo, see below), while other influences ranged from Prince’s Parade to the synth-hook-strewn McCartney II, with Bowie’s frog chorus riff in line with the relentless earworms of “Coming Up.”

McCartney offers a good perspective to view “Miracle Goodnight.” While Bowie’s song isn’t melodically (a near-conversational, & at times actual conversational, vocal that keeps to a three-note range until the choruses) close to McCartney territory, it shares some thematic parallels with the latter’s work. McCartney was one of the few rockers to celebrate domesticity and monogamy, which earned him his share of critical abuse. “Miracle,” a besotted groom’s ode to his wife, is working in the same line, and at times suggests that Bowie’s channeling a distorted memory of McCartney’s public wife-worship.

But as usual with Bowie, there’s an undercurrent of doubt, building on the fatalism of “The Wedding Song.” The singer is in love, but in the choruses he keeps interrogating his senses to reassure himself that she’s real (or is there actually “nobody dancing”?), while occasional hints of doom crop up in the lyric (“haven’t got a death wish,” “burning up our lives,” “ragged, lame and hungry“). The second spoken break is a blunt compromise: let’s agree that we never talk about who we used to sleep with. Even his images of contentment have double meanings: “Iman” is a “morning star,”2 the planet Venus as well as the angel Lucifer, the once light-bringer (she’s also an “evening flower” standing alone3) while the title line is both a man bidding goodnight to a woman he can’t believe he’s with, and the man fearing that the good times will end (don’t want to say goodnight,” Bowie sings towards the fade).

A harmonically spare song in G major (with a climactic E-flat seventh chord swapped in from the parallel minor), “Miracle” has a lightness of touch throughout, whether in its easy transitions between verses and choruses or its occasional musical joke, like an eight-bar keyboard solo in slight hock to Handel’s “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.”4

And just as the song seems about to close, there’s suddenly a dazzling four-bar guitar solo, a last burst of pure elation. Bowie told Nile Rodgers to play “as though the Fifties had never existed,” Rodgers recalled to Dave Thompson. That is, as if white pop music had never been infused with the sound of black electric blues guitarists. “I don’t want to hear a single blue note,” Bowie told Rodgers. (It’s evidence that Bowie was running variants on Eno’s Oblique Strategies on poor Rodgers throughout these sessions, with Bowie taking the role Eno had played on Lodger). So Rodgers came up with a twangy, spiraling line that suggested early Les Paul (especially in the third bar) and also, defying Bowie’s edict by offering an alternate set of black musical influence, the “dry” guitar style of African highlife and soukous. The solo kicks off with a three-chord phrase that had opened the song (it’s the start of the synth hook), then dances in the air, weightless, as though Rodgers is finally able to indulge a set of roaming thoughts. It’s one of his finest guitar solos on record, and by far his best moment on an album for which he was often a frustrated presence.

Recorded ca. summer-autumn 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station, NYC. Issued in October 1993 as the third UK/European single from BTWN (Arista/BMG 74321 16226 7, c/w “Looking for Lester,” #40 UK). It was given a Matthew Rolston video in which Bowie revived Pierrot, performed aerobics with himself and finally got a chance to play his old influence Buster Keaton (albeit a Keaton who’s apparently wandered into a Calvin Klein “Obsession” ad.) (There’s an alternate video by David Mallett, on the BTWN DVD, with Bowie miming to the song alone on a studio set.) Remixes included the 2 Chord Philly Mix and Maserati Blunted Dub (on the CD single), and the Blunted 2, Make Believe Mix and Dance Dub (on the 12″ single). The Make Believe Mix later appeared on the BTWN 2-CD reissue. There’s a surprisingly decent mashup of Thom Yorke’s “Black Swan” with the Maserati Dub version of “Miracle.”

1: The riff (three dyads, or two-note chords: G-B, A-C, A#-C#; a falling phrase (a B-D chord) answered by a G note; and tight runs of three G notes) is an intricate thing. It’s opened on Rodgers’ guitar, but it’s mainly played by two synthesizers parked in the left and right channels of the mix. They begin each reiteration in sync, but as the left-mixed synth gets an additional repeat of the tail-end hook (three repeats of the three G notes to the other synth’s two), this creates a constant echoing effect. There are also two basses parked on the ends of the spectrum, both of which hit on the downbeat then trail off across each bar. The riff is constant throughout the song except for the two solos.

2: There’s also a little play on words here, with Bowie calling her a “yellow dime,” or a sun that’s a “perfect 10.”

3: This line is followed by what sounds like “puzzling capiche,” which only makes sense if worded “puzzling, capiche?”

4: More in mood than melody, as Bowie’s sets of 16th notes are jumping upward where Handel’s were regally descending. (The patterns reappears in the coda).

Top: “Espino Family,”  “Moscow Subway Music,” August 1992.


Black Tie White Noise

October 17, 2012

Black Tie White Noise.
Black Tie White Noise (video).
Black Tie White Noise (Arsenio Hall Show, 1993).
Black Tie White Noise (The Tonight Show, 1993).
Black Tie White Noise (3rd Floor US radio mix).
Black Tie White Noise (club mix).
Black Tie White Noise (Here Come Da Jazz mix).
Black Tie White Noise (extended remix).

A week after they were (first) married, Bowie and Iman flew to Los Angeles for some apartment shopping. Their first night in LA, 29 April 1992, was to be marked by a celebratory dinner. Instead, dinner was cancelled and the couple stayed in their hotel, watching from their windows as the city burned. “The whole thing felt like nothing less than a prison break,” Bowie said the following year to Rolling Stone. “By people who have been caged up for too long with no reason.”

The very JG Ballard image of a rich man standing in his hotel suite, watching a riot unfold in the city below and feeling vaguely euphoric about it, would seem ripe inspiration for someone who’d once written “Panic In Detroit.” Instead, Bowie’s L.A. riots song was “Black Tie White Noise,” a track teetering between dark sarcasm and watery humanism. Though saved from complete disaster by its lyric’s occasional self-awareness and harshness, “Black Tie” drowned this acerbity in a glossy jumble of “contemporary” R&B sounds, the backdrop to Bowie’s duet with a mediocrity, Al B. Sure!.

“Black Tie” started as Bowie’s attack on the pop tradition of interracial-brotherhood songs, from “Black and White” to “Ebony and Ivory” to the song it seemed to be directly answering, Michael Jackson’s “Black or White.” “Black Tie,” while inspired by a racial crisis, denies any wisdom, its most coherent point being that songs of its ilk (Bowie mentions by name “We Are the World,” “We Shall Overcome” and”What’s Going On” (and he weirdly drags “I Got You Babe” into these ranks)) have nothing to say about such crises, that they’re instead cheap slogans meant to make “white liberals” feel better, as Bowie told the NME in 1993. “[Black people] have their own ideas of how they can improve their lot, and they couldn’t give a fuck what we think. They don’t want our advice.” (This seems like Bowie had just seen Spike Lee’s Malcolm X, which had opened in late 1992.) In another 1993 interview, Bowie was scathing about how such songs strive to find “white sameness within everybody” as a means of racial reconciliation.

This emphasis on chastising messengers suggests that Bowie, having long lost any contact with the street, especially the American street, could only approach life via songs. But he was aware of where he stood. In 1993, Arsenio Hall asked Bowie if he and Iman, as an interracial couple, had ever experienced any hostility. Bowie was blunt: never, because the two of them had been established as celebrities well before they’d married. They already had public personae, so their wedding was more akin to the merger of Warner and Time Inc. than it was the potentially “troublesome” union of an African woman and a white British man. To consider their marriage as a typical interracial one would be, as in Bowie’s opening line, “getting [your] facts from a Benetton ad.”

That said, Bowie was playing with his marriage as a symbol. The song’s title is a vague reference to their wedding gear, as well as a comment on their personae (Iman: elegance, Bowie: abrasive music). As he was envisioning having children with his new wife (and he would), it’s fair to say he was considering the future that his bi-racial child would inherit. He finally had some stake in the game, and he was optimistic in an apocalyptic way, believing that a series of further L.A.-style riots were needed before anything changed. “There’s going to be an awful lot of antagonism before there’s any real move forward,” he told Record Collector. Or as he had Al B. Sure! sing: “there’ll be some blood, no doubt about it.”

However, these were all just public statements. “Black Tie” as a finished song, as a title track, discarded the troubling and contrary notions that Bowie was voicing to the press in favor of an awkward and at times tasteless production, one apparently meant to bury the song’s fatalism in a vein of pop R&B so lifeless that it could have won a Grammy.

“Black Tie” as a composition was already an ungainly bird, alternating between pairs of verses set in a vague E-flat major and a longer pair of bridges (interrupted by an 8-bar break over the verse chords) that establish the song in A-flat (with Eb revealed as the dominant chord). (The only curveball is an out-of-key F-sharp minor seventh chord that transitions verses to bridges and vice versa). Over this Nile Rodgers slathered a paste of sounds: a jawboning wah-wah guitar, Lester Bowie’s ebullient trumpet fills, over-mixed drums, a quavering piano ostinato, washes of synthesizer and Tonight-style supper-club backing vocals (their staccato “black! tie! white! noise!” is the closest “Black Tie” comes to a hook, and it’s preferable to Bowie’s descending croak of “no-oi-oi-se” or his would-be-reggae chant of “cranking out” in the coda).

Then there was Al B. Sure!,* to whom Bowie generously gave the opening verse and who got many of the song’s allegedly dramatic moments (and who handled the lion’s share of the high notes, like the peak A-flat on “Lord Lord” in the bridge). Sure!’s performance is ultimately a blank, with little sense of personality imparted. As Bowie said he spent ages coaching Sure! as to how he wanted the vocals to sound, it’s possible that Bowie just shoehorned him in too tightly. It didn’t help that Sure! was given lines like “I’ve got a face, not just my race.

The latter line is in the bridges, which were apparently meant to be the emotional peaks of the song, with the two singers facing off on a street as though it’s the last minutes of Reservoir Dogs. But whatever nuance and fatalism Bowie tried to impart in his lyric is rubbished by the vocals, which border on the comical (“you won’t kill me! you won’t kill me NO!” or Bowie’s singsong “I won-der WHY, I wond-er WHY“) and was finished off by Rodgers’ production, with its swooning high synth lines and occasional murmurs of Bowie’s saxophone.

The break (starting at 2:29) has the best singing on the track, in service of the song’s apparently straight-faced “We Are the World” moment, the cynicism giving way to a heartfelt plea for togetherness. Bowie said that he didn’t want to make another “Ebony and Ivory,” that his song was meant to be a bitter riposte to such treacle, but maybe that’s all he really had in him.

Recorded ca. summer-fall 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and/or Power Station, NYC. Released as the second single from the record it titled, (Arista/BMG 74321 (#36 UK)). Some 15-plus remixes were made of this song! Please see the Illustrated DB site’s entry for a complete breakdown. Of the mixes linked above, the “3rd Floor” mix was first issued on a promo CD for US radio and later was included on the BTWN reissue; the “club mix,” the Extended Remix and the Here Come da Jazz mixes (the latter uses Bowie’s “crankin-out” coda chant as its central hook) were on the UK 12″ promo (BLACK 1), with the latter included on the BTWN reissue.

* Sure!, a man with one of the more ridiculous stage names in pop history, was an occasional chart presence at the turn of the Nineties, with one top 10 hit (“Nite and Day”) and a few R&B #1s (“Off on Your Own,” “Right Now”). By the time “Black Tie” was released in late ’93, he was cooked: he didn’t release another LP or single until 2009.

Top: Dark Sevier, “Los Angeles,” April 1992.


Looking For Lester

October 12, 2012

Looking For Lester.

Arguments as to its quality aside, Black Tie White Noise is one of Bowie’s most thematically coherent records. It’s sequenced as a set of pairings, all framed within the union of Bowie and Iman (which opens and closes the record): a political reading of his marriage (the title track, again a duet), reckonings with his past (his half-brother Terry Burns, his surrogate brother Mick Ronson, his secret sharer Scott Walker) and with his would-be successors (Morrissey, Madonna). The interlude “Looking for Lester,” Bowie’s duet with the trumpeter Lester Bowie, is another past visitation, if a happy, light-footed one: it’s a boyhood dream of David Jones indulged by David Bowie.

Bowie had met the trombonist Joseph Bowie in London and through Joseph had discovered his brother Lester’s music. Throughout the Eighties, Bowie had wanted to work with Lester in some manner, and finally, crafting a jazz-flavored R&B record in New York, he had an opportunity, hiring Lester to play the trumpet solo on “Don’t Let Me Down and Down.” Lester hung around the sessions at the Power Station for weeks afterward, winding up playing on four other tracks, and his presence inspired Nile Rodgers to gin up a rhythm track for Lester to use as a springboard. This eventually became a full-out improvisatory performance, with lengthy trumpet, saxophone and piano solos, riffing on a theme carried by a set of trumpeters arranged by the bandleader Chico O’Farrill.1

Bowie had been a jazz fan before he’d been a Mod (and recall how much British pop in the Sixties was played by frustrated and diverted jazzmen like Charlie Watts, Alan Price, John Paul Jones and John Entwistle)2 and some of his first singles offer a glimpse of yet another alternate Bowie past, here a light jazz-pop figure in the vein of Georgie Fame (see the Fame-inspired “Take My Tip,” whose vocal melody seems like a transposed saxophone line, or “Good Morning Girl,” which Rosemary Clooney could’ve sung).

Lester Bowie (see here for my look at pieces of LB’s recorded legacy) embodied one branch of late 20th Century jazz. With his satyr’s goatee and his lab coat, Bowie was jazz’s mad scientist, emblematic of jazz’s freewheeling faction that imbibed R&B, rock, funk and pop music in all its mutations, a faction that favored noise, commotion, activism, makeup and spectacle instead of serving as the weary caretakers of “America’s Classical Music.” The likes of Lester were the collective retort to jazz’s New Traditionalists, like Wynton Marsalis, for whom jazz was an orthodoxy with a pedigree (New Orleans-originated blues), a canon3 and a narrow aesthetic, both instrumental (“analog” instruments, no synthesizers or electric guitars) and sartorial (suits on stage, no dashikis or glitter).

Whenever the Traditionalist strand of jazz deigned to recognize contemporary pop, it often produced gassy, self-serious works (Sting’s use of Branford Marsalis comes immediately to mind) in which jazz was the elder in the dance, providing “class” and sophistication to its uncouth partner: it was a boring Henry Higgins. This was an appalling thought for Lester, a musical catholic, who consumed and covered country music, the Notorious BIG and Sade, “The Great Pretender” and “I Only Have Eyes for You,” and who happily traded choruses with the man who’d sung “Fame” and “Let’s Dance.” For Lester, jazz was an omnivorous music, a music that fed the past with scraps of the future: he refused to accept that jazz wasn’t a popular music, despite it having lost its mass popularity decades before.

So “Looking For Lester” (the title was Bowie’s, a play on “Chasin’ the Trane”) is New Jazz Swing, a set of solos over a hammering (and rather harshly-mixed) 4/4 dance beat, with a synth bass and electric bassline and an impasto of synthesizer colors (Mike Garson’s piano crops up from time to time, offering little asides, preparing you for his late-in-the-day appearance). The track breaks down like so:

Intro/Theme 1: (0:01-0:36). Lester enters with a pair of phrases, descending triplets which land on a long-held F# note that he eventually yanks down a tone. The song’s main theme, played by massed trumpets over a constant shift between D and C chords (with an E bass throughout), is fairly simple, vaguely similar to the “Peter Gunn Theme”: an opening seesaw (F#-C#-G) that Lester quickly echoes, and a descending answering phrase.

Chorus 1 (0:37-1:20), (20 bars, Lester). The solo choruses shift to B minor, the relative minor of the theme’s D major (the pattern is Em-D-Bm-A).4 Lester mainly plays riffs and variations on the main theme, finding little pockets of melody and digging into them, closing with a sweet soaring phrase.

Theme 2 (1:21-1:39), 8 bars. An aggressively-played return of the theme, with Lester now doodling in the margins.

Chorus 2 (1:40-2:15), (16 bars, Lester). Lester is freer, casting off allegiance to the theme, sounding like a French horn (1:51) and building to a run of short, punchy phrases that are abruptly choked off by a massed trumpet retort.

Theme 3 (2:16-2:23), 4 bars. Just a tiny rest before the next solo, with the main theme harried by the massed trumpet line that had finished off Lester.

Chorus 3 (2:24-4:00), 44 bars, Bowie). It’s Bowie’s album, so he gets the longest solo, natch. He starts with two long, moaning phrases on his sax (the second one goes a bit astray), changes his tone to make it harmonica-like (3:00) and after a brief time in the wilderness, he finds a sweet spot and digs into a melody he likes, just grooving into it again and again. He closes with a nice bit of skronk.

Theme 4, (4:01-4:18), 8 bars. Stage clearing.

Chorus 4 (4:19 to fade), (30+ bars, Garson): And suddenly Mike Garson returns, back in the Bowie fold after nearly 20 years and acting as though no time had passed at all—he’s the same New York oddball, a fallen Scientologist and joker (if only he’d played with Lester more), who seems on the verge of playing a fresh variation on his “Aladdin Sane” solo just for kicks. Garson spikes out a set of dancing runs up and down the keyboard, rumbling on the bass keys and musing on the treble, and keeps on through the fadeout.

Sure, “Looking for Lester” isn’t entirely removed from those rock fantasy camps at which Baby Boomers spend $10,000 for a weekend spent jamming on guitar with Peter Frampton. It’s a mediocre-at-best saxophone player getting to duet with a master trumpeter and having his producer and record company shine up and sell the results. But if “Lester” is an indulgence, it’s not an embarrassment: Lester’s joie de vivre in turn inspired Bowie to forsake his occasional forays into avant-gardisms and just concentrate on honking out a meaty solo as though he was on a bandstand. With Garson as an added spice, “Lester” transcends its role as album filler, instead testifying to Bowie’s reviving senses of texture and melodicism. It’s a preview of what Bowie would accomplish on Buddha of Suburbia.

Recorded ca. summer-fall 1992, the Power Station, NYC. Released on Black Tie White Noise and as the B-side of “Miracle Goodnight” in October 1993.

1 The trumpeters oddly aren’t credited on the album, though there’s a photograph of Bowie and three of them in the studio in the sheet music book. There’s no evidence as to who wrote what on “Lester” (which was co-credited to Rodgers and Bowie, after the former raised a stink—he wasn’t credited on the first issue of the LP), but my guess is that Rodgers was responsible for much of the song—the chords, the rhythm tracks and perhaps the main horn theme—while Bowie likely provided his solo ideas, though of course it’s possible the theme was his.

2 Entwistle, for example, played in a variety of Dixieland bands in the early Sixties, while Jones played with John McLaughlin in a jazz collective, Jett Blacks. Bowie’s old bandmates in the Buzz, John Eager and Derek Fearnley, were also former jazzbos.

3 This canon essentially included any type of jazz pre-1960 and allowed a few stringent admissions of free jazz (basically the first Ornette Coleman records and the late Coltrane ones) but drew the dividing line at Miles Davis going electric in 1969. So much of the fantastic jazz of the Seventies was placed outside the pale thanks to this argument, which was voiced and generally unchallenged in Ken Burns’ Jazz documentary, for which Marsalis and his mentors Stanley Crouch and Albert Murray were primary voices and Lester Bowie was a footnote.

4: The choruses generally close with a transition progression meant to ready the listener to return to D major (Gmaj7-F#m7-Cmaj7-Bm7).

Top: Harry Benson, “Bill and Hillary Clinton,” Little Rock, Ark., 1992; Lester Bowie as off-kilter center of gravity, 1992.


Don’t Let Me Down and Down

October 9, 2012

T Beyby (Tahra, 1988).
Don’t Let Me Down and Down (Tahra, 1988).
Don’t Let Me Down and Down (Bowie).
Don’t Let Me Down and Down (Indonesian vocal).

Sometime in 1992, Iman went on a trip to Paris and returned home with a CD made by a friend of hers. She played the album for her new husband and suggested that he cover something from it. Aloft in the giddy state of early marriage, he happily agreed. So the most obscure cover of Bowie’s life began as a wedding gift.

Tahra Mint Hembara, the musician, was born in Néma, in southeast Mauritania, in 1959. Often described in Bowie literature as a “Mauritanian princess,” she was more accurately a hereditary griot, a member of Mauritania’s caste of poets and musicians  (her aunt was a revered griot, Lekhdera Mint Ahmed Zeidane). Tahra, who was also strikingly beautiful, did some modeling in Europe, which is how she met Iman and how, one assumes, she got connected with Pathé Marconi EMI, who gave her a record contract.

Her first, and to my knowledge only, album on a Western label, Yamen Yamen, was produced by Michel Pascal and Martine Valmont. It was an album of, in the words of the Rough Guide to West Africa, “Mooro-Tech”: songs derived from the traditional modal system of Mauritania (a five-mode system in which a musician plays each mode via two different scales, often called “black” and “white”*) but which were interpreted by French musicians in state-of-the-art Parisian studios in 1988.

It wasn’t as odd a fusion as one would imagine, as Mauritanian music had been more receptive to outside influences than other traditional North African musics, reflecting its location (Mauritania is the large vestibule between the Western Saharan nations of Algeria and Morocco and the Western African nations of Senegal and Mali) and its population, a mix of Berbers and Arabs, Wolof and Soninke. At the same time Mauritanian griots kept to strict gender roles: men played the tidinit (a four-stringed lute) while women, including Tahra, played a harp variant called the ardin (you can see Tahra playing it here, in a concert earlier this year at the Institut Français de Mauritanie.)

For her album, Tahra wrote a haunting song called “T Beyby” that was sequenced as the LP closer. Built of sparse materials—Alain Caron’s fretless bass, Olivier Hutman’s keyboards and Christophe Pascal’s drum programming—“Beyby” was a vehicle for Tahra’s unique voice, which was as harsh as it was unearthly, seemingly existing outside of its song, an exile’s voice captured in an exquisite net of sound; her voice was also the sonic equivalent to her ardin, which plays a jabbing two-note ostinato in the track’s closing minute. The refrain, the hypnotic “den eden dani den edani,” seems like an ardin line reincarnated as words.**

Taken by the song and convinced it could be a possible single, Tahra’s producer Martine Valmont wrote an English lyric for “T Beyby,” renaming it “Don’t Let Me Down and Down” (an English syllabic near-equivalent to Tahra’s refrain) and radically altered the song’s mood. “T Beyby” was sung by a man who’s learned that the woman he loves has left her husband. “He rejoices and thanks God for the Arab proverb, ‘all things return to their source.’” Valmont’s translation, allegedly inspired by a friend who’d recently died, introduced obsession and fatalism into the song: a woman, trapped in a cycle of despair, begs her lover not to let her down yet again.

So Bowie had a palette of choices when covering the song. He could return to the original version’s sense of divine liberation or delve further into the obsessional qualities of the translation, and he could build on the Western/Arabic fusion of “The Wedding.” Unfortunately he did nothing of the sort, instead condemning the song to a fate of glossy schlock, the unwelcome return of the sound of Tonight at its immaculate nadir, with overbearing backing singers, a glittering wall of keyboards, tasteful guitar fills and an airless production that seemed intent on smothering any sense of mystery in the song.

Still, Bowie’s “Don’t Let Me Down and Down” would have been comfortably banal but for his vocal. For whatever reason, Bowie decided to sing the first verses in a cod-patois, some baffling attempt at a vague Jamaican or French-inspired accent (“steel I keep my lurve for youuu,” he begins) that hovers between his lower register and a croaking somnolent timbre. As though shamed by Lester Bowie’s fluttering beauty of a trumpet solo, by far the finest thing on the track, Bowie corrected course in the latter half of the song, lunging into his high register, riffing against the ghastly backing singers and impressively flailing away in an attempt to make the song seem like a Young Americans outtake. It was too late: the mix of a crass arrangement and a bewildering, schizophrenic vocal made “Don’t Let Me Down & Down” one of Bowie’s most disappointing covers.

Recorded ca. summer-fall 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station, NYC. Released in April 1993 on Black Tie White Noise. Planned as the third single from the record until the bankruptcy filing of Savage Records in late 1993. Bowie’s Indonesian vocal (which is preferable to the English one) was released on Indonesian pressings of the album and later included on the reissue of Black Tie White Noise.

* The “black” and “white” scales reportedly have no racial connotations; unfortunately I couldn’t find much information as to their differences. (Tahra and/or her producers translated “Don’t Let Me Down” into an A-flat tonality, with the song built of rich augmented chords—the verses and solo sway between an F minor eleventh and an Ab major seventh (vi11-Imaj7) while the chorus moves from dominant (E-flat) through Ab and Fm11 to close on a D-flat major 7th (V-I-vi11-IVmaj7). The presence, if muted, of “black and white” scales fit symbolically with Bowie’s own “Black Tie White Noise.”

** Though presumably Bowie had the lyric sheet, at times he seems to have learned the song phonetically, singing along to Tahra’s oddly-accented English. Hence he sings “you jog-jog in my memory” instead of “judge and jury in my memory,” among a few other clunkers.

Some recent footage of Tahra is on YouTube: an apparent backstage performance of “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” and some fantastic ardin picking here.

Top: Mikael Colville-Anderson, “Kazghar Chicken Express,” Xinxiang Province, China, 1992.


The Wedding, The Wedding Song

October 4, 2012

The Wedding.
The Wedding Song.

Bowie and Iman were united on one point: that Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus” was appalling and wouldn’t be used in their wedding ceremony. Otherwise she was happy to cede all musical responsibilities to her fiancee. So Bowie chose a Bulgarian choir record (“Evening Gathering”) for the bridal entrance, and for the recessional he wrote his own piece, an attempted fusion of Western and Arabic music to symbolize the union of a man from Bromley and a woman from Mogadishu.

Writing what became “The Wedding” (and its subsequent revision as “The Wedding Song”) served as a creative break for Bowie—he later said composing the former renewed him, with most of the self-penned songs for Black Tie White Noise coming soon afterward—and “The Wedding” worked as an album opener, offering an effervescence of spirit, a lightness of touch that seemingly had gone missing somewhere in Bowie’s Eighties.

Wedding songs and pop music are often ill-suited partners. Pop wedding songs tend to be grotesquely comic (“The Big Bopper’s Wedding,” “Dear Doctor”) or bitter and depressing, as someone is often left stranded at the altar in them (“$1,000 Wedding”) or suffers wedding-night blues (“Band of Gold,” “Wedding in Cherokee County”). It’s understandable, as marriage, with its compromises, its implied adulthood, its apparent finality, its sense of an ending, can seem irreconcilable with the ever-unfulfilled promise of pop music. Occasionally you get something as perfect and sweet as “Chapel of Love.” But just as often there’s an ominousness in wedding songs, a sense that the people who are marrying in them are deliberately blinding themselves for a moment, that their bliss will only last as long as the record plays. It’s telling that one of the best wedding songs, Ike and Tina Turner’s “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” happily documents the start of a horrific union.

It’s hard not to compare Bowie’s pair of wedding songs to his “Be My Wife.” The latter has no place in any wedding ceremony, with its abrasive neediness, its irregular rhythms, its empty vocals, although its chorus lyric, excised from its song, could have been written by Dan Fogelberg: stay with me, share my life. “Be My Wife,” written while Bowie was shaking off his addictions and his first marriage, has a cold irony in its depths: it means exactly what it says, that the singer is absolutely desperate for connection, that he wants to escape himself by joining with someone else, but the precise chaos of its arrangement and Bowie’s unreadable blank phrasing denies these attempts. It’s a closed circle.

There’s none of that tension in “The Wedding.” There’s no great depth of spirit, no sense of a settled conflict. It’s meant as a public song, the public face of an (apparently still) happy and successful union, a merger of thriving celebrity ventures, the musical equivalent to the images of the golden, supernatural-looking creatures marrying in the pages of Hello!. Built on a repeating three-chord progression (D-A-Bm-A) in A major, with a brief foray into B-flat major in a eight-bar “bridge” section (starting at 2:33), “The Wedding” is a series of intertwined duets. There are two sets of bells (tubular, played by Michael Reisman) that open the track, the two main keyboard lines, the two-note bassline, jumping between fifth and root notes of the chord (it’s close to a slowed-down version of the hook in Melle Mel’s “White Lines.”)* There’s even a pairing in the chord structure, with a steady A major dancing with a changing set of suitors: D, Bm, Bb.

Most of all, there are Bowie’s twin saxophone lines: an initial “traditional” one, calling back to the days of Davie Jones and the King Bees, with Bowie’s Earl Bostic-inspired playing rich with thick melody (he apparently used the solo lines as the basis for his vocal top melodies) that dances through two choruses, and a second “Arabic” saxophone—Bowie’s tenor sax altered, echoed and distorted, apparently sped-up in places—that’s more discordant and has a more exuberant energy. As Bowie easily could have found an actual Arabic musician to duet with him, his decision to also play the “Eastern” role, for lack of a better word, suggests an attempt to incorporate his wife into himself, reversing the birth of Pallas Athena.

I’m so happy people want to strangle me most of the time.

Bowie on the Arsenio Hall Show, 1993.

At some point in the BTWN sessions, Bowie decided to write a lyric for “The Wedding,” and so following the sequencing of Scary Monsters, he closed the album with a reprise of the opener. He happily admitted that his lyric was just a saccharine ode to his wife, his own extended version of “The Lovely Linda,” though the images he chose again were a reckoning with his musical past. There’s the murmured “I’m gonna be so good/just like a good boy should,” Bowie sinking to a low A on the last three words, which lightens the fatalism of “Beauty and the Beast,” where Bowie had tried to be good but admitted it was a loss. And the central image of Iman as his personal angel revises the indifferent angel of “Look Back in Anger” as a golden spirit.

Returning to how rock wedding songs often have an unresolved conflict in them, that tension is slightly there in Bowie’s “Wedding.” If Iman is his personal angel, she’s also on another plane from him, one which he’s denied entrance to. “She’s not mine forever,” he sings. She’s a temporary embassy from heaven to him, and he won’t be united with her in heaven, because heaven doesn’t exist for him: only the moment, only the wedding. But does it matter? A wedding at its best is a defiance: a public statement that despite age and indifference, despite the ravages of time and chance and illness, two people are taking an impossible stand against their inevitable demise, whether as a couple or as mere humans. “I’ll never fly so high,” Bowie sings, in a gorgeous, slow sweep up a fifth to peak on a long-held E.  But “I’m smiling.”

Recorded ca. summer-fall 1992 at Mountain Studios, Montreux and/or the Power Station, NYC. Released in April 1993 on Black Tie White Noise.

* An appropriately inappropriate reference, given DB’s history. Melle Mel had taken the bassline from Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern.

Top: Brian Aris, photographs from the Bowie-Iman wedding, 6 June 1992, Florence (Brian Eno looks like a caterer caught in the photo by accident). Complete set of Hello shots here.


Pallas Athena

September 28, 2012

Pallas Athena.
Pallas Athena (Arsenio Hall Show, 1993).
Pallas Athena (Don’t Stop Praying remix No. 2).
Pallas Athena (live, 1997).

For Black Tie White Noise, Bowie in the UK was negotiating with a few labels, including BMG/Arista. During one meeting at Arista, when Bowie was playing DATs of the rough mixes, the Arista team brought in their secret weapon: Martyn Watson, an A&R consultant and a complete Bowie fanatic (among his bona fides: attending all six Wembley shows in 1976). They sat Watson next to Bowie. While the rest of the table was nodding along and deferentially complimenting the music, Watson was actually listening to it, and at one point, he leaned over to Bowie and said “is that something from ‘Heroes’ there?

Bowie reached over and snapped off the tape. The room fell silent. Watson feared for his professional life. Then Bowie smiled, put his arm around Watson and said: “This guy’s got ears!” “I went from persona non grata to top boy,” Watson recalled. “We got the gig.”* He recalls a charming Bowie who occasionally stopped by the office and offered to make coffee for staffers, and a man who seemed engaged in his record, eager to push it as best he could.

Watson proved to be a key piece of Arista’s strategy to promote the record, as he had connections throughout UK clubland and was instrumental in distributing copies of the first track to be released from BTWN, “Pallas Athena.” Arista cut some promo 12″ singles that were only stamped with the track’s title, and Watson and others in the Arista crew delivered them personally to a hand-selected group of influential DJs. The gambit worked in part—“Pallas Athena” was a hit in the clubs—but there wasn’t quite enough time to get out the news that it was David Bowie responsible for the groaning “God…is on top of it all” over a throbbing beat.

The simple goal for Arista, Watson said, was to try to make David Bowie cool again. “I loved him more than my mum,” he said, but he noted that being a publicly identified Bowie fan in the UK in the late Eighties meant to expose yourself to ridicule. So having various remixes of BTWN tracks by the likes of Meat Beat Manifesto, Back to Basics and Leftfield (Watson lobbied for Underworld, to no avail—there was a divide in Arista between mainstream dance pop and the underground clubbers) were in part Arista’s means of wrapping up Bowie in something current, to sneak him past the tastemakers and let him be judged on his own merits again.

“Pallas” was one of the most radical tracks Bowie had made in years. For one thing, it hardly sounded like Bowie at all, with the disassociated voices akin to the clips of televangelist speeches that Eno and David Byrne had used on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. (The big question is: is the “God” voice a sample or is it Bowie’s distorted, down-sped voice? I think it’s the latter, but have not found any concrete evidence either way).

Its structure seemed influenced not just by whatever house and techno records Bowie had heard, but by minimalist composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass (see “Weeping Wall”): it’s the link between the second side of Low and Earthling. The melodic material, including the vocal lines, is used stringently and is constantly recycled, subtly changing in the process. Over a bassline that sounds four G notes per bar, a four-note pattern (B-flat-G-A-G) runs throughout the track: it’s carried first via four-bar sets of whole notes on synth and “live” ‘cello, which is then joined by repeating sets of quarter notes on synth violins (triggered by the move to “that’s all”), which in turn is capped by runs of eighth notes on high synth violins (in sync with the drumbeat kicking in), and, lastly, by Bowie’s own distorted “we-are we-are,” singing the same note pattern. The only alteration is the occasional tweak to the bass pattern (changing to Bb-Bb-G-Bb at times).

Over this are the chanted refrains: “God is on top of it all,” “that’s all,” and “we are, we are.” The initial run of “God is on top of it all” sounds definitive, striking, even reassuring; God is in control, relax. But as the chant goes on, the message becomes vaguer, more disturbing: is just a map reference, with God simply located at the top level, far removed from us, indifferent to our pleas? The vocal lines start to bleed together. At times the sequence is “that’s all that’s all we are,” other times “we are praying,” (or is it “ready“?), other times, it’s “we are we are God.” The title adds another element: Pallas Athena was hatched from the head of a god (“from the brow of the super-brain,” see “Song for Bob Dylan”). It gives weight to the vague Gnosticism implied here, that God may be at the top of it all, but we may also be above him. Or it could be a reference to the temple of Athena Nike at the top of the Akropolis, which, if so, then God is an empty ruin standing above a city that no longer worships her.

The only free agent is Bowie’s saxophone, which goes on a series of excursions, its phrases often starting with a rising triplet figure and ending with a downward glissando. In the closing minute of the track, the saxophone is joined by Lester Bowie’s trumpet, forming an island of raucous community in an otherwise chaotic song.

Recorded ca. summer-autumn 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station, NYC.  Released in March 1993 as Arista MEAT 1 (the Don’t Stop Praying Remixes #1 and #2 and the Gone Midnight Mix): these later appeared as the B-side of “Jump They Say,” as a bonus track on the 2003 reissue of BTWN, and on the 2003 reissue of Sound + Vision, respectively. These remixes, along with the album version of “Pallas,” were also released as a digital EP in 2010. A live version of “Pallas,” recorded at Club Paradiso in Amsterdam on 10 June 1997, was issued as the B-side of “Seven Years in Tibet” that same August (it’s also on the revised Sound + Vision).

* As Watson noted, it helped that Arista at the time was loaded with money (dropping £10,000 to hold a “rave” promotional party in the summer of 1993), thanks to just having one of the biggest radio hits of all time, Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.”

Thanks to Martyn Watson, a longtime blog reader and a very nice guy, for his time and his stories. If you have any more questions for him, I’m sure he’ll respond in the comments.

Top: Bastienne Schmidt, “Two Drunk Women, Puno, Peru,” 1992.


Lucy Can’t Dance

September 25, 2012

Lucy Can’t Dance.

Do you accept–or disclaim–any credit for Madonna’s shape-shifting career?

I have to leave that to you guys. But I would get behind it [her career] a lot more if I really felt anything for her music. It’s conventional in the extreme. I guess I’ve seen too much, because I don’t really find her provocative, either.

David Bowie, interview, 1992.

While Nile Rodgers gamely talked up Black Tie White Noise during its release, he later said he’d been frustrated and disappointed with the record. In a long, hilarious rant to David Buckley, Rodgers groused that his hands had been tied throughout the sessions, that Bowie was running away from making the radio-friendly smash that the world expected from a Rodgers/Bowie collaboration (“Star Wars 2,” as Rodgers called it). Instead, Bowie seemingly wanted to make a private album on a platinum budget (“This record is about my wedding,” he said, to which Rodgers replied: “But David, no one cares about your wedding! Let’ s make a hit!“) and kept rejecting the guitar licks that Rodgers played him (“maybe the licks I thought of stank…but I knew they couldn’t all suck!“). Rodgers tried to use Iman, a friend of his, as an intermediary, but she backed her husband.

The problem was that a decade had passed since Let’s Dance, and Bowie had been through the crucible of the Never Let Me Down debacle and the Tin Machine years. He couldn’t make himself commit to a record that pretended the past 10 years hadn’t happened: he couldn’t make Star Wars 2. Compromising his songs, guessing at a sound that a mass audience would find palatable, had only gotten Bowie Tonight. So the intentions of producer and singer had reversed. In 1982, Rodgers, trying to make a name for himself outside of disco, had wanted to make an art-rock record like Scary Monsters: it was Bowie who pushed for a more marketable sound. Now Rodgers, a long-established hitmaker, wanted to have another #1 album to his name, while Bowie wanted a stranger, jazz-influenced, club-oriented record.

Nothing baffled Rodgers more than the fate of “Lucy Can’t Dance” (“a guaranteed number 1 record,” he later said. “Imagine Nile Rodgers and David Bowie come out with a song called ‘Lucy Can’t Dance’? I was already accepting my Grammy“). An easy choice for a lead-off single, “Lucy” instead was nearly shelved, Bowie only relenting by including it as a CD bonus track. Bowie’s never said why he did this. Perhaps the song’s cheery, trebly sound clashed with the rest of the album; perhaps he thought “Lucy” was such an earworm, such a piece of candyfloss, that it offered too easy a pleasure, that he would look ridiculous miming it on Top of the Pops.

Like “You’ve Been Around,” “Lucy” was a half-decade-old composition. Originally called “Lucille Can’t Dance,” it dated to the 1988 Los Angeles session where Bowie had demoed “Pretty Pink Rose.” While the original demo isn’t circulating, so it’s unknown how much the lyric changed in four years, the final “Lucy Can’t Dance”* is Bowie’s vicious take-down of an artist that many at the time considered to be his successor: Madonna.

As with Gary Numan, Bowie lacked his typical generosity of spirit towards his contemporaries with Madonna, to whom he could be cutting, even cruel (making a joke about Madonna getting beaten up by Sean Penn on “Pretty Thing”). Whether it was paranoia, that a younger, hungrier artist was taking some of his best bits, or just an old con artist deprecating an up-and-coming one, as he could easily see the seams and wires that the audience was missing, Bowie’s general dismissal of Madonna is understandable, if petty and regrettable (imagine the music the two could have made together).

So “Lucy Can’t Dance” is a piece of well-aimed snark, targeting Madonna at a time when her cultural presence was inescapable (it was the era of the Sex book, one of the most tedious and expensive pieces of pornography ever released). “Lucy, I know what you’re going to do” (because he’s already done it)…now you’re looking for God in exciting new ways” (as if predicting Madonna’s Kabbalist period). Who died and made you material girl? (a sharply clever line, making the typical play on “material girl” but also suggesting that Madonna only took form when someone else (cough) had left the stage). And the chorus refrain, Lucy can’t dance but she knows what the noise can do, is a pitiless indictment of an artist who has no soul but who approximates the music of those who do.

Of course, all of this could have been said about Bowie as well, and he knew it: Bowie’s lines in the bridge (“So I’ll spin while my lunatic lyric goes wrong“) mock his own penchant for word-salad lyricism and his own cracked ambitions. But all the best put-downs have a taste of self-mockery in them (“Like a Rolling Stone” is arguably about Dylan himself as much as Edie Sedgwick, or whoever the intended target was): it just adds sting to the venom.

A rather shapeless song, “Lucy” was built of long sets of verse/refrains that alternate between A major and G major, and a D major-based chorus, linked by a harmonically-chaotic bridge (rambling up from B minor (“pursuing your frenzy“) to a G major (“sexual noise”)/G minor (“you live and you die“) switch-up to close on a diminished E chord (“eye“)). Its vocal phrases keep to a few patterns: a fourth-descending line in Bowie’s lower register (the opening lines of the verse; the chorus hook), a double-tracked rising-and-dipping line that’s up an octave (“did the world just explode...”) and the nagging “da da da da-da da-DA-da-da” hook.

Rodgers shaped the track to pop on the radio, loading it with hooks: showers of clacking percussion (the opening burst sounds like pencils being rattled in a metal can), his low-mixed, underwater- sounding guitar fills, trumpet blasts, a unyielding synth bass. All for naught: the song slipped out, barely noticed, offering only a suggestion of an alternate 1993 in which “Lucy” fought it out with Madonna singles on the radio.

Recorded ca. summer-autumn 1992 at Mountain Studios, Montreux and the Power Station, NYC. Released as a CD bonus track on Black Tie White Noise, though it was issued as a promo single in the Philippines in 1993.

* “Lucille” suggests Bowie was considering an early rock & roll reference at first (either/both the Little Richard song and BB King’s guitar). “Lucy,” in addition to being easier to sing, may also be a nod to The Linguini Incident, as it was the name of Bowie’s co-star Rosanna Arquette’s character (& in another Madonna tie, Arquette had co-starred with Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan). And of course, Nile Rodgers had produced Madonna’s Like a Virgin soon after he’d made Let’s Dance.

Top: Madonna, still from the “Erotica” video, 1992.


You’ve Been Around

September 20, 2012

You’ve Been Around (live, Tin Machine, 1989).
You’ve Been Around.
You’ve Been Around (video).
You’ve Been Around (Jack Dangers 12″ mix).
You’ve Been Around (Reeves Gabrels, with Bowie and Gary Oldman, 1995).

As “You’ve Been Around” was sequenced as the first vocal track to appear on Black Tie White Noise,* it was Bowie’s first “solo” statement in six years. Unsurprisingly, many took the song to be a pledge to his new wife or his latest self-reassessment, a fresh shareholder’s letter by an absentee owner (“I stay over many years/I should have thought of that,” plus a tossed-in reference to “Changes”). But “Around” was actually Bowie’s drastic revision of his recent past. The song dated to the start of Bowie’s collaboration with Reeves Gabrels in 1988. Tin Machine had even played it once on stage, at the start of their 1989 tour.

Bowie later said “Around” had never worked with Tin Machine, blaming in part his own obstinacy—he had refused to accept what the rest of the band wanted to do with the song, so it was shelved. He wound up holding it in reserve until he had the freedom to rethink the song, using a different cast of players. The BTWN version of “Around” didn’t alter much of Bowie’s cut-up-derived lyric (only a few lines were rejiggered, mainly for better ease of singing). What the remake did was effectively erase the song’s co-composer, Gabrels.

The original “You’ve Been Around,” as evidenced by its sole live recording and demo (the latter recycled by Gabrels on a solo record, see below), was built on one of Gabrels’ best guitar hooks of the period—a grungy ostinato figure that was the meat of the song, which was otherwise an oddly structured piece, with its rambling, barely-melodic verses trailing into brief refrain tags.

Bowie, working with Nile Rodgers, erased the riff from the equation, instead centering the track on a rhythmic base: a synthesizer “bed,” Barry Campbell’s pulsating bassline and a combination of live drums (either Pugi Bell or Sterling Campbell, the latter soon to become Bowie’s main drummer) and drum machine programming. He had Gabrels come in to provide the guitars and then perversely mixed him so low that he’s barely audible in places, while Bowie gave the main solo, which had been a gorgeous melodic run by Gabrels, to Lester Bowie’s elated trumpet. (Further burying Gabrels was Rodgers, who plays classic Chic-style rhythm guitar in the second verse and chorus). In a promo interview for the album, Bowie said: “I had the chance to mix Reeves way into the background. I thought that would doubtlessly really irritate him, which indeed it did.“**

The rethink of “Around” fit Bowie’s apparent overall intention for BTWN, which was to avoid easy pleasures, to the point of perversity at times; a seeming distrust of pop immediacy is all over the record. Here Bowie took a song that easily would have been a highlight of the first Tin Machine record, and one which just as easily could have been a bright, roaring album opener on BTWN, and converted it into a strange piece of art funk, offering a dance foundation for a four-chord drone in B minor (the refrain sinking deeper into E minor, with only a brief escape into F# major (“bad from wrong”)). “What I like about the first half of the song is that there’s no harmonic reference,” Bowie said. “It’s just drums, and the vocal comes out of nowhere—you’re not sure if it’s a melody line or a drone. It’s an ominous feeling.”

The first minute-and-a-half of “Around” seems bent on throwing off the listener (mind, this is after said listener has just sat through a five-minute instrumental). After a faded-in “ambient” synthesizer that occasionally breaks into static, there’s an intro baked out of fragments—ringing percussion, shards of guitar, a laconic bass. This in turn becomes the support of Bowie’s first verse, in which his voice, doubled by a distorted echo of himself, rambles through a series of disjunct phrases, some abruptly sinking by a fifth on the last note (“violent night“), some flat, all building to the tortured “viii-ooo-lin” that Bowie yanks across two bars and lets plummet by nearly an octave. The transition to the chorus comes without warning, the “you’ve been around” tag suddenly appearing in what at first seems to be another verse (the only cue is the now-grooving bassline).

Bowie’s performance, while not dissimilar to how he originally sang the piece, is channeling Scott Walker, the not-so-hidden muse of BTWN (we’ll get to “Nite Flights,” which will be a much-too-long look at Bowie and Walker’s three-decade conversation, towards the end of our survey). As with a few other tracks on BTWN, Bowie seems intent here on out-Walkering Walker here: the sepulchral crooning, the near-recitative top melodies, a sense of hermetic grandiosity. It’s crafting a sort of alternate-universe pop, one that speaks a dialect of pop but one which fundamentally seems cut off from its everyday conversation. “Around,” like much of the record it opened, is a strange private music in the guise of a public one.

As for Gabrels, he made his reply in 1995, refitting the original “Around” demo with some new guitar tracks, and, in a fine tit-for-tat, he replaced Bowie’s vocals in the second verse with the actor Gary Oldman (sounding a bit like Bono).

“You’ve Been Around” was played once on the first Tin Machine tour, at the opening show at The Globe, NYC, on 14 June 1989. The studio version was recorded ca. summer-autumn 1992, at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or The Power Station, NYC. Released in April 1993 on Black Tie White Noise. A remix of “Around” by Jack Dangers (Meat Beat Manifesto) was issued as the B-side of “Black Tie White Noise”; a longer edit of the remix is on the 2-CD/DVD 2003 reissue of the album. The Bowie/Oldman/Gabrels version is on Gabrels’ Sacred Squall of Now, 1995.

* BTWN opens, as we’ll soon see, with the instrumental “The Wedding,” although on the LP version, “Around” is the lead-off track, with “The Wedding” deleted for presumably space reasons (open Q: was anyone still buying new vinyl in 1993?).

** This was Gabrels’ only appearance on the record. While he’d also cut a solo for “I Feel Free,” it was wiped once Bowie recruited Mick Ronson for that track.

Top: Ed Newman, “Jolly Bunch Parade,” Treme, New Orleans, 1992.