I’m Afraid of Americans

May 14, 2013

cheer

I’m Afraid of Americans (first version, Showgirls OST).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Earthling remake).
I’m Afraid of Americans (video, Trent Reznor Remix V1).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V2).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V3, Ice Cube).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V4).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V5, Photek).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V6).
I’m Afraid of Americans (50th Birthday concert, w/ Sonic Youth, 1997).
I’m Afraid of Americans (live, 1997).
I’m Afraid of Americans (GQ Awards, 1997).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Howard Stern Show, 1998).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Musique Plus, 1999).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Live at the BBC, 2000).
I’m Afraid of Americans (live, 2002).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Live By Request, 2002).
I’m Afraid of Americans (live, 2002).
I’m Afraid of Americans (live, 2004).
I’m Afraid of Americans (NIN, live, 2009).

I never said, “The superman exists, and he’s American.” What I said was,”God exists, and he’s American.”

Prof. Milton Glass, Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen.

“I’m Afraid of Americans,” made and remade over the course of two years, has no definitive version. It’s an Earthling album track, a soundtrack obscurity and, in its most popular incarnation, a Trent Reznor single remix, which was a minor US hit in 1997. Slot it as another of Bowie’s “stateless” songs, in the company of “Holy Holy” and “Strangers When We Meet.” Originally called “Dummy” (a Portishead nod?), the song came out of the final sessions for Outside in January 1995, its initial mix a fairly rote Brian Eno concoction of drum, synthesizer and distorted vocal loops, a few of which—a monotone laugh hook and a synth hook that pinged around an E-flat octave—persevered through most subsequent revisions.

Its first lyric hinted at Bowie’s renewed interest in David Byrne (see “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town”), its chorus calling back to the Talking Heads’ “Animals”: “I’m afraid of the animals!” Bowie howled, with an apparent vocal improvisation turning “animals” into “Americans” by the close of the track. Not making the cut for Outside, “Dummy” was quickly slated for Johnny Mnemonic, a Keanu Reeves-starring adaption of a William Gibson short story, which opened in May 1995.* But allegedly Eno told Bowie to rescind the offer, as the film sounded bad (one ill omen: Bono had been offered a role and turned it down). So instead “Dummy,” by now retitled “I’m Afraid of Americans,” wound up on the soundtrack of Joe Eszterhas’ and Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls.

This was the version of “Americans” that I first heard, as Showgirls, at least in New York in the winter of 1995-1996, quickly evolved from first-run flop into a cult film playing the midnight circuit. Given the ludicrous nature of Showgirls, (“I’m erect. Why aren’t you erect?” “Only people I know got pimp cars are pimps.” Only Road House has better lines), Bowie growling lines like “dummy wants to suck on a Coke” seemed appropriate—its lyric is basically poor Elizabeth Berkley’s plotline in the film. The Showgirls soundtrack, an uninspired collection of mild Goth and pop industrial, was released around Christmas ’95 and went into rotation, well at least in a few West Village and Upper East Side bars I frequented, more for its connection to the revered film than for any merit of its own.

I mention this because “I’m Afraid of Americans,” from my perspective, was the last Bowie song that had any purchase in America, the last song of his (chronologically-speaking) that I can recall hearing in public, Bowie’s voice intoning in a club or piping out through car speakers (mainly the track’s Reznor mix incarnation). In the US at least, “Americans” is the last Bowie song that rattled around in a wider culture, existing outside of Bowie fandom: its paranoid video was part of the TV compost of the late Nineties.

shwgirls

Maybe he was embarrassed that a song of his wound up on the Showgirls soundtrack, or he might have been looking for workable material in the time-tightened Earthling sessions. In any event, Bowie revised “I’m Afraid of Americans” in August 1996, changing the lyric’s protagonist to “Johnny” (a callback to Mnemonic, or perhaps to Bowie’s own “Repetition.”)

He kept the structure of the song, a one-chord vamp in F major,* mainly intact: spare verses sewn through with loops and hooks and given a near-conversational phrasing, Bowie keeping to a two-note range; choruses where multiple-tracked guitars kicked in and Bowie moved to his higher register, his phrases now spanning fifths (“afraid of the WORLD,” “afraid I can’t HELP IT”). For Earthling, he transposed and rewrote verses: the Showgirls version’s opening verse became the Earthling version’s third, while he put in a new opener that incorporated the “laugh” hook.

The remake was bright and “current”: its arrangement was a stew of everything from Nine Inch Nails to favorites like Underworld and Photek (the new opening line sounded like “Photek’s at the wheel”), its mix was in line with the post-Pixies, post-Nirvana “alternative” rock template of volleying between sonic extremes for verses and choruses. But the new mix was also cluttered, with seemingly every bar affixed with baubles: a keyboard gurgle, a feedback whistle, assorted static, twinging high synth note loops, a synth line in the chorus that sounded like “Macarena,” various Reeves Gabrels pull-offs and bent notes. For ballast it had its main hook, a riff sounding root and fifth notes of the F chord, carried first on keyboard and then, in the chorus, thundered by Gail Ann Dorsey’s bass.

So dedicated to spectacle, the Earthling “Americans” could fumble the drama: the climactic “God is an American” section began with Bowie singing over Mike Garson’s keyboards, a sense of lightness and unease (slightly suggesting Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” which Bowie would play live during the subsequent tour). But the mood died when Bowie then up-shifted to another chorus, singing, in strained voice, over jacked-up drums. Still, the tasteless shifts in tone and the over-the-top mix fit what Bowie intended: the singer was afraid of Americans, but his song was meant to cater to their debased tastes.

trentmix

Where the song’s first lyric had Bowie afraid of the natural world, in later versions his paranoia found richer territory. “Americans” were an easy target. By the mid-Nineties, with the Cold War wound down and the virtues of Yankee capitalism unquestioned, the public face of the United States, to some, was a bloated, drunken fan celebrating his team’s victory well after the game had been called. God is an American, as Bowie sang.**

As much as Bowie had been fascinated by America as a kid, as much as commercial success there had consumed him in the early Seventies, he never shook his view of the country as being fundamentally crass, incoherent and violent (he loved to describe his first visits to the US in 1971-2 as a time when there were “snipers on the roofs”). He explained the lyric of “Americans” to journalists by saying he was referring to the public face of America, the one that everyone else in the world has to see: its gaudy advertisements, its junk food, its all-conquering franchises, its action films. “I was traveling in Java when [its] first McDonald’s went up: it was like, “for fuck’s sake,’” he said. Meanwhile the “real America” of blues musicians and Beat poets (“the aspects of America that are really magical to us,” Bowie said) remained hidden, even (or especially) at home.

There was a bit of Gnosticism here: while the visible America is a false, fallen world, the true “magical” one is accessible only to those who learn to see it. What most of us see is just surface America, the backlot that “Johnny” walks through in the song while eating, driving, screwing, preening in the mirror. Even the false God (again, pure Gnosticism) who created the world is an American, and he’s busy drowning out any murmurs of resistance with Entertainment Tonight and the OJ Simpson trial.

But Bowie’s “real” America was just as tainted: blues musicians and Beat poets are just as commodified as Pepsi, as are “outsider” artists, punk rockers, skateboarders, rappers and any other potential subversives. They’re just less-attended wings of the same carnival tent. The fact that “I’m Afraid of Americans” became a minor US hit (like “Young Americans,” another jeremiad turned into a good-time song by the country it belittled) showed how the carnival endures: piss on the tent, and you get brought in and made into a fresh act.

afraid

Its video was a European tourist’s nightmare of walking in an American city. Some thuggish American will single you out for your weird clothes and accent, and chase you down; everyone’s armed; the street people are jabbering and menacing; the cabbies are lunatics; the whole place is overrun by machine guns and Christian fanatics. (Trent Reznor, looking like a Manson Family member and wearing Travis Bickle’s jacket, plays a convincing heavy).***

The video used Reznor’s first remix of the song, which was issued as the radio single. In it, Reznor scrubbed the track of much of the Gabrels/Eno jiggery-pokery, instead staggering new loops and riffs for ominous effects (a static grinding noise mixed right builds to swamp the first chorus). The bassline is held back until the second chorus, where it’s delivered via harsh, distorted guitar. Later choruses are shaken by jackhammer synth beats; “God is American,” chanted over a chanted loop that’s shadowed by an murderous bassline, is the last word: the song never returns to the bravado of its chorus again, instead just muttering its way to the fade.

For me, it’s the best version, but other spins of the wheel turn up equally appealing/appalling faces: the fledgling version trapped in the high trash of Showgirls; the geegaw-filled Earthling take; the Ice Cube remix, where Cube chases Bowie’s voice through the track as Reznor did in the video (“shut up and be happy!” he yells. “Superbowl Sunday!“); the various live versions that rely on the muscle-flexing chorus for effect. A hydra-headed song, “Americans” is Bowie’s last bitter populist moment.

miss america

Original version recorded ca. January 1995, Record Plant, NYC, and released in December 1995 on the Showgirls OST (Interscope 92652-2). The remake, recorded at Looking Glass Studios in August 1996, appeared on Earthling, while Reznor’s various remixes were issued on a US-only CD single (Virgin V25H-38618, #66 US), issued October 1997. Performed live throughout the remainder of Bowie’s tours.

* Most of the time the song stays on a F7 chord, but the guitars shift to F5 power chords to beef up the choruses. A C minor (the dominant chord of F’s parallel minor) makes a cameo appearance in the “God is an American” section.

** One ancestor to this song is Jackson Browne’s “Lawyers in Love,” a vicious late Cold War satire in a cheery pop package, complete with doo-wop breaks: it’s the US fulfilling its Manifest Destiny at last (“now we’ve got all this room! we’ve even got the moon!“), with God sending spaceships down to blessed America in time to watch us watch the six o’clock news, and where even the layabout Jesus Christ has to get a job. Browne’s prediction that “I hear the U.S.S.R. will be open soon/As vacation land for lawyers in love” was pretty much how it turned out.

*** Recall that around this time the papers were playing up a “wave” of German tourists being mugged and killed in Florida. Also, the ill-fated 1996 revival of Doctor Who opens with Sylvester McCoy walking out into a San Francisco street, immediately being shot by thugs and dying on an operating table thanks to American surgical malpractice.

Top to bottom: “Streetpix,” “Cheerleaders, New Year’s Day Parade, London, 1996.”; various fearful or fearsome Americans.

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Outside Tour: The Nine Inch Nails Duets

May 2, 2013

dbtrent

Reptile (Nine Inch Nails).
Reptile (Bowie and Nine Inch Nails, first live performance, 1995).
Reptile (Bowie and Nine Inch Nails, live, 1995).
Hurt (Nine Inch Nails).
Hurt (Bowie and Nine Inch Nails, first live performance).
Hurt (Bowie and Nine Inch Nails, live, 1995).
Complete Bowie/NIN “transition” sequence (live, 1995).

And remember, with all original numbers the audiences are hearing numbers they’ve never heard before—so this makes for a varied stage act. It’s risky, because the kids aren’t familiar with the tunes, but I’m sure it makes their musical life more interesting.

David Bowie, Melody Maker, February 1966.

He didn’t want to tour again. Each of the last three times had been unhappy in its own way: Glass Spider had exhausted him; Sound + Vision had been soul-eroding; the Tin Machine “It’s My Life” tour had been soured by a bandmate’s addiction. But Virgin Records believed Bowie finally had something with Outside—pre-orders were starting to pile up and the reunion with Eno was getting press—and urged him to consider at least doing a short promotional tour.

So in May 1995 he began rehearsing for a provisional half-dozen shows. He retained the core Outside group of Reeves Gabrels, Carlos Alomar and Mike Garson and hired a new rhythm section. Sterling Campbell had the chance to join a band (unfortunately it was Soul Asylum), so he begged off and recommended his friend Zachary Alford, who had drummed for the B-52s and Bruce Springsteen. And Erdal Kizilcay, after having served as a bassist/Johnny do-it-all since the mid-Eighties, was unceremoniously cut loose, for good. Bowie’s new bassist was Gail Ann Dorsey, a busy session musician and occasional solo artist, who Bowie had first seen playing Bobby Womack’s “You’re Welcome, Stop on By” on The Tube.

Pleased with his band and intrigued to play his new Outside material, Bowie agreed to expand the tour: six weeks in America and another four months, off and on, in the UK and Europe. Bowie hired a keyboardist, Peter Schwartz, to serve as musical director. As Paul Trynka noted, this was a political move, getting Bowie off the hook, as he didn’t have to choose a “favorite son” among Garson, Alomar and Gabrels, all of whom had been directors in past tours.

I really want, for the rest of my working career, to put myself in a place where I’m doing something that’s keeping my creative juices going, and you can’t do that if you’re just trotting out cabaret-style big hits.

Bowie, 1995.

With “Sound + Vision” as the template for what he didn’t want to do, Bowie crafted a fairly radical set: over half of the songs were from a record that, for the first few weeks of the tour, hadn’t been released. (And were still fresh for Bowie: a reviewer noticed him cribbing lyrics from sheets of paper.) Bowie claimed his revived songs were “obscure even to my oldest fans,” a bit of an overstatement. But even those who knew the likes of “Andy Warhol” (its inclusion owed to Bowie’s recent portrayal of Warhol in Basquiat) may not have recognized them at first: e.g., the trip-hop reclamation of “Man Who Sold the World,” with its signature guitar riff erased. Many younger attendees thought Bowie was covering the late Kurt Cobain.

Some old songs were included for thematic or sonic ties to Outside: “Joe the Lion,My Death” and “Nite Flights.” Bowie mainly harvested from his late Seventies works, an acknowledgement that the “Berlin” records had become the hippest Bowie albums of the Nineties and that he was bored with glam-era standards. “I compile cassettes of the obscurer stuff for the car. It would be wonderful to play live stuff I want to hear myself. Before I tended to pander to the audience,” he said.

So the “Outside” tour included a pair from Low (“What in the World,”Breaking Glass”), a trio from Lodger (“Look Back in Anger,“Boys Keep Swinging” and “DJ”) and, for an occasional closer, the live debut of “Teenage Wildlife.” A few concessions came later in the tour, when Bowie brought in “Under Pressure” as a duet with Dorsey. When he moved to the UK and Europe, he occasionally played “Moonage Daydream” as a closer and “Diamond Dogs” as a mid-set booster.1

bowieNIN

Bowie’s gambit was choosing Nine Inch Nails as his opening act for the US leg. He had never done anything like this before: having a younger, hungrier band open for him. (“The most aggressive band ever to enter the Top Five,” Bowie crowed to the New York Daily News.) He risked being blown off the stage, being made to look old.2

But he needed to upgrade the brand again. His management team had commissioned a survey of teenagers in the summer of 1995 and found the kids had “a brutal disregard for history and legacies.” When asked what words came to mind when they heard “David Bowie,” responses included “gay” and “Let’s Dance.” As per David Buckley’s bio, the survey writers suggested a radical revision of the Bowie image, such as making “a new-blood hip hop and rave album of new workings of old songs.” (Another suggestion: collaborate with DeVante Swing).

By the summer of 1995, Nine Inch Nails had become the most popular “industrial” band in the US: The Downward Spiral and Pretty Hate Machine were both certified platinum, “Closer” was a constant on MTV and NIN had been touring almost non-stop for a year.  Introduced to NIN’s music by Reeves Gabrels during the Tin Machine tours, Bowie also was flattered to read interviews with Trent Reznor in which Reznor had praised him, saying he’d listened to Low daily while making Downward Spiral. He was also taken by Reznor’s melodicism, finding that the man who howled “I wanna fuck you like an ANIMAL!” in arenas each night was a secret rock classicist. “Once you get past the sonic information, [his] actual writing abilities are very well grounded…every era of rock is actually in there, even though it’s in this guise of apocalyptic music,” Bowie said of Reznor. “There’s actually Beatles harmonies in there.”

I think [Reznor] is a keenly intelligent young man, very focused, and quite shy. I guess people said that about me as well.

Bowie, Hartford Courant, 1995.

Although he was exhausted from touring, Reznor agreed to support Bowie. He later said he was terrified of Bowie at first, that he would inwardly recoil when seeing him backstage, not wanting to talk to him. I felt I had to impress him. I had to impress his band. I couldn’t just let my hair down. (That said, this interview with MTV’s Kennedy, shot the night before the first concert, finds Bowie and Reznor being goofy and self-effacing, and seemingly comfortable with each other.)

Their lives had parallels: both had been suburban misfits and dreamers (although Reznor, who came from Mercer, Pennsylvania, had a far more isolated childhood, culturally), both had done time in the minor leagues. Bowie’s journeyman Sixties were similar to Reznor’s Eighties, where he bounced between bands, got bit parts in movies (he’s in the Michael J. Fox “rock” movie Light of Day), worked as a janitor/engineer at a Cleveland studio.

And Reznor in 1995 was where Bowie had been two decades earlier: famous, controversial, cracking up, hooked on cocaine. On the Outside tour, Bowie quietly served as a grounding point for Reznor; he offered, in his music and his performances (on and off stage), the potential of a future. His main vice now was chain-smoking Gitanes. He seemed comfortable in himself, but he wasn’t self-satisfied; he wanted a new audience, and was willing to work for them; he was confident enough, or unhinged enough, to risk embarrassing himself by howling about Ramona A. Stone on stage instead of playing “Changes” again. (Well, perhaps Bowie had become a bit stodgy: NIN’s dressing room was a haven for some of his band, who, according to Reznor, “didn’t want to sit around talking about fucking German art movies. They wanted to hang out.”)

Bowie and Reznor designed an interim sequence to bridge their sets. There would be no NIN encore. Instead Bowie, then his band, would join NIN on stage, then NIN would depart, leaving Reznor singing with Bowie’s band. The sequence also worked, thematically, as a lead-in to the Outside songs. The inter-set began with “Subterraneans” and “Scary Monsters,” the latter ret-conned into a song about Baby Grace. Then Bowie, in a duet with Reznor, sang NIN’s “Reptile.”3

dbtren

[Adolescents] go through a grimly day-to-day existence. There doesn’t seem to be the bounce that I remember when I was the same age.

Bowie, ca. 1995.

The Downward Spiral, Reznor said, was a 14-track document of someone who was systematically purging himself of anything that tied him to humanity. The record is sequenced to build to “a certain degree of madness,” climaxing with “Big Man With a Gun,” whose lyric was later cited by the likes of Bob Dole and William Bennett as being so morally degenerate that Reznor’s record company should have dumped him for making it. (The furor was one reason Time Warner sold its shares in Interscope, Reznor’s label, in late 1995.)

Two tracks later was “Reptile,” where alienation has corroded even the idea of sex, the singer equating ejaculation with contamination, his girlfriend with a reptile, a whore, a succubus. She spreads herself wide open to let the insects in…seeds from a thousand others drip down from within. The singer turns the blade on himself in the second verse: he’s worthless, vile, a corrupter corrupted (“Reptile” can seem like Reznor’s sideways sequel to “Scary Monsters.”)

The NIN cut began with pizzicato string loops set against clanking mass production noises, its verses sung over a percussion battery that was punctuated by what sounded like piston/carriage returns. But Reznor countered this mechanical ominousness with glimpses of tonality, still moments of beauty: take the interlude (5:14) marked by a whole-tone rise on keyboard from D to A-flat, reminiscent of a Low Side B instrumental. This had been Reznor’s trait since he started Nine Inch Nails: he humanized the societal indictments of classic industrial music, leavened the industrial sound with, as Bowie pointed out, classic rock melodies and chords. As Alec Wilkinson wrote, “industrial music insisted that modern life had become a shipwreck. Reznor made the ruination specific to a single person.”

Playing “Reptile,” Bowie and Reznor traded off lines in the verses (Bowie, still in character from “Scary Monsters,” gave his best Mockney to lines like “leaves a trayyl of hunn-eey“) and harmonized in the chorus. Reznor kept the big dramatic vocal moments (“REPTILE!” or the howled “LOVELESS!”), while Bowie, when he wasn’t singing, swayed and kept upstage, as if being buffeted by the noise the two bands were churning out.

Bowie delighted in singing the type of lyric that would be cited by the PMRC in press releases as a sign of cultural decay and the “seedy artist” persona that he favored for the early Outside shows also suited the song. Bowie added a necessary theatricality to performances of “Reptile” that otherwise veered towards the bludgeoning—the melodic/industrial tension of the studio “Reptile” was often diminished live in favor of a thudding, corrosive power.

dbnin

[“Hurt”] sounded like something I could have recorded in the 60s. There’s more heart and soul and pain in that song than any that’s come along in a long time.

Johnny Cash.

That song came from a pretty private, personal place for me. So it seemed like, well, that’s my song…Here’s this thing I wrote in my bedroom in a moment of frailty and now Johnny Cash is singing it. It kind of freaked me out..It felt invasive. It was like my child. It was like I was building a home and someone else moved into it…[But] I haven’t listened to my version since then.

Trent Reznor, on Cash’s version of “Hurt.”

After “Hallo Spaceboy,” the NIN/Bowie sequence ended with a performance of “Hurt,” the closing track of Downward Spiral. Where “Reptile” was bluster and comic vileness, “Hurt” was a kid alone in his bedroom, staring at a wall, rubbing the barely-scabbed scar on his wrist, too numb to even hate himself.  The song was a “valentine to the sufferer,” Reznor later said. There’s a defiance in Reznor’s singing on the studio track, moving from the steady whisper of the early verses (suggesting that if Reznor had taken up guitar instead of keyboard, he would’ve sounded like Elliot Smith) to the bravado of the chorus: the kid delights in still being able to hurt someone else.

In 2002, a dying Johnny Cash recorded “Hurt” for what would be his last album. Rick Rubin had given Cash a mix tape of potential covers, including the Cure’s “Lovesong” and Reznor’s “Hurt.” Cash was struck by the latter. He sang it “100 times before I went and recorded it, because I had to make it mine.” Cash’s “Hurt,” with the cold gravitas he gave to Reznor’s words, the way he seemed to inhabit the song’s plaintive melody, made Reznor’s original seem like an imitation. It was an old man sacking a young man’s lament, taking up residence in the ruins.

Cash’s “Hurt” rebuked the future that Bowie had offered Reznor in 1995. A dying old man tells a teenager that no, it really doesn’t get better, that your losses and your miseries only deepen with age, that life is, at its root, catastrophic. But it’s still terrible when you have to leave it behind. A teenager cutting himself in his bedroom at least still has his premises; death still has an air of romance. Cash, in “Hurt,” just has shot memories that aren’t worth the price of salt. Cash took “Hurt” to its serest limits, singing it as if Cormac McCarthy had written it for Blood Meridian. Take the power with which he sings Reznor’s chorus, the best lyric Reznor ever wrote, Cash’s steady roar paced by the repeated staccato piano note:

What have I become,
My sweetest friend.
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end.

Cash grew up Pentecostal and he never deserted Christianity, though at times it seemed that his relations with God were like Tolstoy’s (“two bears in the same den,” as Gorky said of the latter). Cash’s “Hurt” is a broken Calvinism: we are mostly damned, mortal life can never provide transcendence. If there’s another life, well, maybe there’s meaning there, but this one’s shot. Then, the last verse: Cash wonders if he could start again. He considers a resurrection somewhere else, he’s so emptied of his life that he’s finally entertaining hope.

Bowie, in his performances of “Hurt” with Reznor, stood at a remove from the Reznor’s original adolescent misery and the valetudinarian misery of Cash’s. As with “Reptile,” he slightly burlesqued the song, intoning the opening verse in the Dracula-is-risen voice he’d used for high camp moments like “Cat People.” In 1995, standing in the middle of life, his pains behind him, Bowie got a kick in trying on an adolescent’s garb again. He took “NIN’s nihilistic anthems and twisted them into perverse serenades,” wrote the critic Ken Bogle, who saw the Seattle gig. Compared to the Cash cover, Bowie’s performances of “Hurt” can seem flimsy, grandiose. But he’s also reassuring. In his chorus duets with Reznor, Bowie has authority, taking the higher harmony, with Reznor sounding like a kid singing along (flatly at times) to a record. In his odd way, Bowie’s an embodiment of hope here. The young and the old can become so dedicated to misery; Bowie makes middle age seem like a lark, the only time when we have the freedom not to be serious.

db

I’m playing to a hardcore Nails fan between the ages of 14 and 22…they can often be found body-surfing during my version of Jacques Brel’s “My Death.”

Bowie, 1995.

Reeves Gabrels described the audiences at the NIN/Bowie shows as a changing of the tribes. When NIN was playing, most of the Bowie fans were in the lobby; when Bowie was on, the NIN fans went to the lobby, or just left. So Bowie had keep up the momentum of the NIN sets or he’d soon face rows of empty seats. At times it didn’t work: only half the audience remained by the end of one Meadowlands show, and in Seattle “most of Bowie’s newer stuff left the crowd arm-crossingly bored,” Bogle wrote. Bowie tightened his performances, pushed his band. “We had to adjust emotionally to the fact that we were going to be challenged every night,” he said. “It did help me understand a certain aesthetic that was needed to do live performances in front of younger crowds.” Alford recalled to Marc Spitz that this tension is what “made it seem real for David…not knowing what the audience would do at the end of each song.”

The Outside tour generally got fair to poor reviews. Hearing the likes of “Voyeur of Utter Destruction” and “I’m Deranged” for the first time on stage, some reviewers found the new songs incoherent and unmemorable. The Philadelphia Inquirer: Charged with bringing life to his dim new works, Bowie looked like a stiff, robot-ish shell of his former self. This was…the sound of a lost soul, an artist so determined to position himself “ahead” of the culture that he’d neglected the basics. Like songwriting.” The New York Times: “His new songs are oddly made, as if designed to envelop the listener rather than to leave catchy memories…[Bowie] was trying to hold together songs that seemed to dissolve before they ended.”

When the tour moved to the UK in November 1995, with Morrissey now (briefly) the opening act, Bowie’s fight against nostalgia grew more pitched, as he lacked the potential young converts the NIN gigs had brought him.4 Christopher Sandford, attending one of the Wembley gigs, recalled seeing businessmen in hospitality suites, drinking wine and networking, while a raving Bowie performed below them. Fans came dressed as Ziggy Stardust and Halloween Jack and got “Small Plot of Land” instead. The UK papers were often harsh. The Times: an uphill slog…Bowie appeared from behind the drum kit singing and walking as if in his sleep. Or the amazing splenetic rant by Simon Williams in the NME: “El Bowza’s latest lurch away from reality is entitled Outside, which is kind of about ‘outsiders’ and involves all these strange neo-futuristic characters running around El Bowza’s head and it’s sort of a concept album blah blah bollocks blah blah ARSE!!!!!!!

All that remains are the recordings of the shows. Here, removed from the din of expectations and resentments and bewilderments, is Bowie in fighting trim, backed by one of the finest stage bands of his career, remorselessly blasting through one of his most adventurous sets. It’s fair to say that posterity backed Bowie’s play: the Outside tour was a marvel, with Bowie at his most alive and shameless.

hurt

1: Consider the Outside tour the one Bowie never gave after Scary Monsters. The set lists were fluid throughout the US leg (14 September-31 October 1995). The “pre-release” shows in September often opened (after the NIN hand-off) with “Voyeur of Utter Destruction” and “Hearts Filthy Lesson.” Bowie front-loaded the Outside songs until, triggered by “Jump They Say,” he closed with a run of older pieces (often with “Nite Flights” or “Wildlife” as a set-ender). By mid-October, sets were starting with “Look Back in Anger” or “Architects Eyes.” Reeves Gabrels opened before NIN but eventually gave up after being worn out by the collected indifference of NIN fans.

The UK/Ireland shows (14 November-13 December 1995) had a more stable setlist. No longer having to slot uptempo songs first to keep momentum going from the NIN sets, Bowie was free to begin moodily, and he did: “The Motel” and “Small Plot of Land” were usual openers. This leg is where “DJ,” “Boys Keep Swinging” and “Daydream” were incorporated into sets. Bowie’s live staple “White Light/White Heat” turned up in some of the last European shows (17 January-20 February 1996) and would appear during the 1996 festival tour (see “Telling Lies”).

2: Sure, Duran Duran had opened for some dates of the Glass Spider tour in 1987, but they were past their peak. NIN opening for Bowie in 1995 was as if the Clash had opened for him in 1978.

3: This is how the sequence worked, at least in the early shows, but as seen in the “complete” clip above, the Bowie band and NIN were playing together on “Scary Monsters” at some point.

4: It’s telling that Bowie chose not to attend his induction to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in January 1996, instead playing a gig in Helsinki that night. (Madonna and David Byrne inducted him.)

Sources: Reznor & Cash quotes on “Hurt”: Anthony DeCurtis, In Other Words: Artists Talk About Life and Work; on Cash and “Hurt”: Graeme Thomson, The Resurrection of Johnny Cash: Hurt, Redemption and American Recordings; on “Reptile”: Mitchell Morris, “Musical Virtues”; on Reznor: Alec Wilkinson, “Music From the Machine,” New Yorker, 12 December 2012. Bowie quotes are from various interviews of the 1995-1996 period, mainly compiled by Pegg, Thompson, Buckley, Trynka and Spitz.

Top-bottom: shots from various Bowie/NIN shows, September-October 1995.


I Have Not Been to Oxford Town

April 22, 2013

95staten

I Have Not Been to Oxford Town.
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (rehearsal, fragment, 1995).
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (first live performance, 1995).
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (live, 1995).
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (live, 1996).

It began as “Trio,” a rhythm track that Brian Eno, Carlos Alomar and the drummer Joey Baron worked up at the Hit Factory on 17 January 1995, one of the last days of the Outside sessions. Waiting around for Bowie, they knocked a song together to kill time. This was a recurring theme: Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson, waiting for Bowie in Trident Studios during Man Who Sold the World; Alomar, Andy Newmark, Willie Weeks, David Sanborn and Mike Garson waiting in Sigma Sound during Young Americans. It’s likely a tactic, Bowie running his studio sessions like a psychology lab. Delay the appearance of the lead actor, let the supporting players work something out of his absence.

Two days later, Bowie heard “Trio” for the first time. He sat down, started writing, asked for another playback, said he’d need five tracks set aside for his vocals. As Eno wrote in his diary, “then he went into the vocal booth and sang the most obscure thing imaginable—long spaces, little incomplete lines. He unfolded the whole thing in reverse, keeping us in suspense for the main song. Within half an hour he’d substantially finished what may be the most infectious song we’ve ever written together, currently called ‘Toll the Bell.’

There was a simple G major harmonic structure to work with: the verses held on G, with a descending turnaround through F and A minor; the refrain just shifted between G and its IV chord, C major; the bridge finally introduced the dominant (V) chord, a D major. As per Eno’s account, Bowie seems to have sewed together a vocal out of rhythms (one likely starting point was using the F-Am turnaround to underpin the two-note backing vocal melody: “all’s…well“), auditioning meters, playing with vowel alignments and consonance: e.g., my attorney seems sincere, with the little internal rhyme of “ney” and “seem” and the four consecutive “ess” sounds. There’s a severity to his verse phrasings, with their short vowels and Bowie’s curt appraisal of each syllable, letting some pass, haranguing others (Baby Grace is the victimm). And it’s countered by the almost jovial lightness in the chorus, one long dancing line of melody, with its easy phrases and rich rhymes: take “toll the bell,” both a consonant rhyme and onomatopoeiac (& the tolling’s echoed by the “all’s well” hook two bars later).

The fact that Bowie came up with the lyric (and top melody?) in a half-hour is witness to his creative strength at the time. Working at a steady pace since Buddha of Suburbia, gaining the confidence and insight to abandon most of one idea (the Leon suites) in favor of, at the relatively last minute, new, improvised material, it’s as if Bowie had physically willed himself back into an earlier state of creativity. It couldn’t, and it didn’t, last for long. But it produced “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” which is a marvel, the best song Bowie wrote in the Nineties.

oxfrd

As a rhythm guitarist, I do my stuff knowing a lead guitarist will come in. So I stay away from certain frequencies, concentrate on making a sturdy frame.

Carlos Alomar, 1995.

It’s all just paint, right?

Nile Rodgers, on making recordings.

“Oxford Town” isn’t the end of Carlos Alomar’s work with Bowie: he would play on the subsequent Outside tour and he’ll turn up to take two last bows in the early 2000s. But “Oxford Town” is his finale, his last great accompaniment.

Reeves Gabrels is in the mix as well: he’s likely playing the distorted, seething line, mixed left, that lingers throughout the first verse and chorus like a bad conscience. Alomar’s first unmistakably heard* in the second pre-chorus, playing a little dancing line, mixed center, that jabs against the verse melody, and then, gathering confidence, he starts conniving against the beat in the main chorus. There’s the nervy arpeggios in the bridge and then, when the verse returns, Alomar stays on, riffing, converting Gabrels in the process (or is it another Alomar track? Whoever’s responsible, the distorted guitar stops sulking and begins dancing as well).

And the coda is a last duet, Bowie and arguably his finest collaborator. By the last forty seconds of the track, there are at least three Alomar guitar dubs, talking to each other, making filigrees around the sturdy, constant melody that Bowie sings. Alomar, either on his Parker Fly or, even more fitting, his classic Alembic Maverick, plays bright, hook-filled lines, mainly keeping to the top three strings. The last few seconds of “Oxford Town” are Alomar alone, a sideman having taken the spotlight by force, hooked into a riff that seems like it will never end until it drops dead.

dbb

There’s a ghost in “Oxford Town,” too. Bowie’s vocal echoes someone who he’d never acknowledged before: David Byrne (compare Bowie’s “lord, get me out of here” to Byrne’s phrasing on lines like “wasting precious time” in “Found a Job”).

Bowie and Byrne had kept to separate worlds, with Eno as their only nexus point (edit: “DJ” is allegedly Bowie imitating Byrne, as per a Talking Heads bio—see comments). But as Outside was supposed to be an American album, Leon Blank an alleged American suspect, this gave Bowie a way to use Byrne, particularly his vocal on “Once In a Lifetime,” as a thread in his backdrop. And Bowie and Byrne’s takes on America were fundamentally similar. Byrne was born in Scotland, grew up in Ontario before winding up in Maryland. For him, America would always be a foreign country, especially the vast heartland that he spied from airplanes or bus windows (“I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to,” he’d later sing.) This alienation gave him a way to appreciate “native” American artifacts as works of art: he transcribed game shows and acted them out, and in the late Seventies, he became fascinated by radio broadcasts of evangelical preachers.

Like “Oxford Town,” “Once in a Lifetime” had started as a rhythm track, anchored on Tina Weymouth’s alternating three-note bassline. What Bowie mainly took from “Lifetime” was Byrne’s patter in the verses, a chant-like phrasing Byrne himself had taken from evangelical radio**: You may find yourself! in another part of the world! Hectoring repetition, mainly keeping to one note (“you may find yourself”), balanced with elated, upward-tugging, rhyme-heavy phrases (“behind the wheel of a large automobile!“) You can hear Byrne in Bowie’s last verse, the repetition and rhythmic variations as”Leon” confesses/denies his crimes, sounding as if the words are ripping out of him. If I had not ripped the fabric…if I had not met Ramona…

There’s also a similarity in the two songs’ refrains, which offer a way out from the claustrophobia of their verses. In “Once in a Lifetime,” the exit’s through water: whether metaphor (the aridity of materialist America in the verse met by the communist bounty of water) or religion (Christian baptism, the Islamic ideal of submission to God) or just signalling the freer, more rhythmically dense music (Byrne was referencing Fela Kuti’s “Water Get No Enemy”) that the Heads had started playing.

In “Oxford Town,” the escape is through sound: tolling bells, collective hums, chants (and after all, only sound can escape a prison cell). But who’s in the cell, anyhow? Time for Leon Blank to speak.

six

Manager: I should like to know if anyone has ever heard of a character who gets right out of his part and perorates and speechifies as you do. Have you ever heard of a case? I haven’t.

Father: You have never met such a case, sir, because authors, as a rule, hide the labor of their creations…Imagine such a misfortune as I have described to you: to be born of an author’s fantasy, and be denied life by him; and then answer me if these characters left alive, and yet without life, weren’t right in doing what they did do and are doing now to persuade him to give them their stage life.

Luigi Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author, Act III.

Outside was the first time “in 20 years” (or so he told Billboard) that Bowie had played characters. It was different from Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke, where he’d gone too deep into the characters, tailored their costumes too tightly to his “real” self, he said. On Outside, Bowie would play a more traditional narrator/author role.

But the characters couldn’t even attain the depth of cartoons. Those that had the most signs of life were those that had something akin to Bowie: the alternate-life suburban dreamer in Algeria Touchshriek and the all-conquering artistic ego in Ramona Stone. The nebulous narrator figures, the Artist and Minotaur, were just Bowie “doing the police in different voices.” The rest were press-ganged from movies that Bowie liked: Baby Grace was Bowie imitating David Lynch’s Laura Palmer, while Nathan Adler was a private-eye mingle: Rick Deckard, Philip Marlowe (more Elliott Gould than Bogart), Gary Oldman’s Jack Grimaldi.

This left Leon Blank, accused killer. Leon began as Bowie riffing on Tricky (with a bit of Jean-Michel Basquiat thrown in) but the character was reactive, passive, only seen through the eyes of others. Then Bowie, dashing out the lyric that became “Oxford Town,” finally gave Leon a monologue. The character took on life, began pushing back against its erstwhile creator.

“Oxford Town” is a condemned man’s song, some last words from a jailhouse, which had been a favorite scenario of Bowie’s youth (see “Bars of the County Jail” and “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud”). The first verses find Leon pacing his cell, giving a sketch of his confinement: the food’s foul, the bedsheets are decent, his attorney means well, the priest seems willing to listen. The cold, slightly hectoring tone that Bowie uses makes Leon’s report seem like a man ticking off a list before he goes on a trip.

Then there’s a bridge, and Leon stops reading his lines and starts talking to his author:

This is your shadow on my wall…
This is what I could have been.

I have not been to Oxford Town isn’t just an alibi, it’s a criticism. Bowie failed to give his creations life, stuck them in ridiculous situations, gave them nothing to feed on. Leon kicks against the cheap story that he was folded into: If I had not met Ramona (who was Ramona anyhow?)….If I had not ripped the fabric. “Oxford Town” is a condemned man’s retort: yes, look at the blankets and the priest you gave me—they’re just cheap props. What did you really give me? Nothing. Here, this is what I could have been.

On stage in Paris a year later, Bowie gave one possible ending. Someone threw a white scarf on stage and Bowie, with his old mime’s instincts, played with the scarf, twining it around his neck, making a sling with it for his arm. Then he strung it into a noose, and, while singing the end choruses, aped hanging himself.

lb

[Outside] is only symbolically anguished. I think we are in for a very good time when we get to the next millennium.

Bowie, press conference, 1995.

There would be no sequel albums to Outside, no 2. Inside or 3. Afrikaans or A Night in Oxford Town. No more clues or red herrings or murder revelations or narratives. No grand concert with Eno to mark the millennium in Vienna. No more work (ever?) with Eno. Outside was, arguably, a failure. The album that came out of the implosion of the Leon project was hard to digest: even its die-hard fans may admit it’s overlong and oddly sequenced.

Still, perhaps this unwieldy apparatus, this compilation of role-playing games and Verbasized cut-up lyrics, of computer-generated portraits and vocoded voices, Minotaur paintings and barely-readable “diaries,” was what Bowie needed to finally work on a grand scale again. It’s as if a man who’d once been able to fly now needed some great jerry-rigged dirigible to get him off the ground. But he was still flying. If this was the price paid to get “Oxford Town” and “Hearts Filthy Lesson,“The Motel” and “Thru’ These Architects Eyes” and “Hallo Spaceboy,” well, it wasn’t that dear a price.

In Bowie’s promotional interviews for Outside, he kept saying that his millennial obsessions, the blood and mayhem and piercings and scarifications of the Nineties art world and pop culture, were a purging. We needed to burn the dross and relics of the old century to clear a way for the new one, which would be a calmer time. It didn’t quite turn out that way. The Nineties can now seem like a soap bubble, a playtime in which a world that could have gone anywhere scared itself with trifles and serial killer stories and “art murders.” Despite the murdered girl at the heart of it, Outside generally sounds optimistic, open. It was of its time: the Nineties sometimes felt like they were the gangway to the future we’d imagined, certainly not the future we got.

All’s well. A town crier’s words, after all. Let the old century die, move on. Bowie did: he went on tour to promote Outside, fell in love with his band, made his next record a tribute to them. Pay off Nathan Adler, write him out of the series. Toll the bell, strike the set, say goodbye, baby, and amen.

Recorded 17-20 January (poss. overdubs in February) 1995, Hit Factory, NYC. Covered as “I Have Not Been to Paradise” by Zoe Poledouris on the Starship Troopers soundtrack in 1996.

* I’m thinking that Alomar also plays the sliding hook that begins in the first verse, but it could’ve been Gabrels.

**Byrne was taping broadcasts of these preachers around 1979-1980 for what later became My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

Top: Andreas Freund, “Staten Island Ferry,” 1995; Jean-Baptiste Mondino, back cover of David Byrne, 1994; Ian McKellen, Alison Prior, Margaret Drabble and John Fortune rehearse Six Characters in Search of an Author, ADC Theatre, Cambridge, 1959; “Oxford Town” lyrics (in theory); Bowie/Leon.


Thru’ These Architects Eyes

April 10, 2013

ny95

Thru’ These Architects Eyes.
Thru’ These Architects Eyes (live, 1995).

Effect before everything.

Philip Johnson.

1. Reeves Gabrels urged Bowie to scrap a revision of “Hearts Filthy Lesson” that had a lyric about English landscape painters. An undeterred Bowie got his art history piece onto Outside anyhow with “Thru’ These Architects Eyes,” where he name-checks the architects Philip Johnson and Richard Rogers.

Johnson was an American Modernist: the man who imported the International Style to the US in the Thirties, the man who built a glass house in a Connecticut suburb. The British Rogers savored interiors: take his Centre Pompidou or Lloyd’s Building, where the “guts” of the building, its pipes, elevators, gas lines and cables, form a barricade against the street. By the time Bowie wrote this song, Johnson and Rogers had entered the red giant phase of their careers, forever winning commissions, being flattered for worn-out designs, their buildings seemingly cropping up everywhere you looked in a Western city.

Bowie may have recognized a fellow traveler in Johnson—a brutal aesthete who was dedicated to his whims. Johnson’s biographer Franz Schulze wrote that Johnson’s “genius was that of a singularly gifted harlequin who forever changed the masks of style on his own work and conducted his personal relationships with comparable whimsicality.” Johnson had been in a Bowie song before, indirectly: recall the “Manhattoes” jumping from the roof of Johnson’s AT&T Building in “Goodbye Mr. Ed.” A building that was, according to architecture critic Carter Wiseman, “a unique fusion of aesthetic rebellion and corporate commerce… less architecture than it was logo, less work of art than hood ornament.”

2. Consider the title’s odd punctuation: the superfluous apostrophe after “thru,” the lack of apostrophe in the (apparently) possessive “architects.” The song’s title is a tiny piece of architecture. The apostrophe after “thru” ornaments that word. The lack of punctuation on “architects eyes” means to hook the eye, like a glass door that leads nowhere: you feel that “architects” should own “eyes,” but instead the two words just stand together alone, their “natural” relationship denied.

3. Bowie walks through a city, past great steel and glass towers designed by great architects for great multi-national companies. He feels like a stowaway. A city has great reserves to humble you or to drive you mad with inspiration. The character that Bowie sings here believes he’s a greater designer than either Rogers or Johnson, than any of the faceless men who had drafted the grid he walks along. Like Bowie’s old Starman, he’ll blow our minds if only we met him.

This is the Nineties. Capitalism has won out, history is over: all that’s left is a long revel. We’re living in the golden age, the golden age, as the song begins [edit: or it’s digging for gold and it’s the goal…”]. There’s so much galling promise lying around. The singer’s working in a job he hates but he doesn’t have the guts to quit. His cowardice makes him boil with envy: These summer scumholes/This goddamned starving life. The song is bled through with resentment. It has the clammy taste of insignificance; it’s a man cursing while he walks in the shadow of Johnson’s Lipstick Building (which housed Bernie Madoff’s office), upon seeing Rogers’ Millennium Dome blight his view of the South Bank.

4. What city is he walking in? If you take the lyric literally, you’ll need a Johnson and a Rogers within eyeshot of each other. So it’s not New York, where there are no Rogers buildings, nor London, where there are no Johnsons (one guess is that it’s Madrid, where you could look out from Johnson’s Puerta de Europa towers and spy Rogers’ terminal at the Barajas Airport). Also, Bowie is “stomping along on this great Philip Johnson,” but Johnson never designed a bridge or a walkway. Perhaps Bowie’s gone King Kong, swaying with menace atop a skyscraper.

rr

5. “Richard Rogers” is not the architect, but the composer. The creator of Oklahoma! and Carousel is Bowie’s ally against Johnson, as “Architects” concerns Bowie, songwriter, fitfully comparing his mental landscapes, the Hunger Cities and Suffragette Cities, the Crack Cities and Oxford Towns of his own imaginings, to the concrete (a word that Bowie puns on later in the song) realizations of mere architects.

Bowie, the architect who took his cities on tour with him. This goddamned starving life: the life of an artist, insatiable, constantly having to feed on the word and to spew out new ones.

6. “Architects Eyes,” along with “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” is the implosion of the Outside storyline, where the anti-narrative consumes itself. Everything breaks down. See the stagehands flailing, trying to hold up the collapsing backdrops, while the cast walks off in disgust. Even the prompter’s booth is empty. “Oxford Town,” as we’ll see, is a character’s rebuttal. “Architects” is an author’s requiem for his failed work, of which he’s still defiantly proud. Bowie is like Buster Keaton in One Week, staring at the crazed house that he built by trusting to his wayward sense of direction. He thinks it’s beautiful.

7. If Bowie is the most Gnostic of rock musicians; this is one of his most Gnostic songs (see “Station to Station” for another one). A core Christian Gnostic heresy, to boil it down to a sentence, is that the world we live in was not created by God, but by a lesser being—that man is a fallen god himself, that gnosis (literally “knowledge”) will reveal this condition. This is the underground stream that fed the 20th Century. Bowie came to it through Buddhism and his obsession with Aleister Crowley. The unlocking of the self, the knowledge that we are not what we are, is the key that Bowie played in since he began writing songs, his changing costumes merely outward manifestations of this. It’s the promise he’s always offered his fans. But he was always aware of the darker implications of this promise: how the search for God within oneself can lead to the fascist will to power, the bewitching cult of mass celebrity, the Thatcherite liberation from “society” in favor of the “socialism of the self.”

Philip Johnson, who built great glass towers for capitalists to play in, had a long infatuation with fascism in his youth. He went to a Nazi rally in Potsdam and got turned on (“all those blond boys in black leather,” he later recalled). He wrote an admiring article on “Architecture and the Third Reich” in 1933 and even once the war had begun in 1939, he was still writing pro-Hitler articles for American magazines: “Hitler’s ‘racism’ is a perfectly simple though far-reaching idea. It is the myth of ‘we, the best,’ which we find, more or less fully developed, in all vigorous cultures.”

We, the best. Who else is an Architect? Ask St. Thomas Aquinas: “God, Who is the first principle of all things, may be compared to things created as the architect is to things designed.” But in Bowie’s song this is a lesser god, a poor architect. A bungler, a god who left tectonic plates to crack against each other, who condemned vast swathes of the globe to ice and desert. The steaming caves, the rocks and the sand. Note the shoddy workmanship.

pjba

8. There’s an old legend in which an architect has his eyes gouged out upon finishing his work. It happened to the designer of the Strasbourg astronomical clock, they say. Or the designer of Prague’s astronomical clock, who had his eyes ripped out upon the cathedral’s unveiling. Ivan the Terrible used a poker to put out the eyes of the man who built St. Basil’s Cathedral. None of these stories seem to be true, but they served our purpose. The designer of something beautiful deserves to be maimed for it, to be denied the chance to build something colossal for another. There’s a sadistic pleasure in knowing that a maker will never see his creation again.

9. What city is this? The man walks alone through it, barely visible when seen beneath the great structures that some other, grander figure designed. He’s estranged from a shoddy creation, which houses the strong at the expense of the weak. Is it a city he made? Is he planning another one? Mind your eyes.

All the majesty of a city landscape
All the soaring days in our lives
All the concrete dreams in my mind’s eye
All the joy I see
Thru’ these architects eyes

There’s contempt and anger in how Bowie sings these lines, a man screaming that everything he sees, even the very filaments of his dreams, have been wrought by some other power, who he resents (see Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet”: “I was born here and I’ll die here—against my will“). Bowie’s voice sounds strained in the chorus, it’s a muscular push against the song’s harmonic movement, the track’s busy arrangement of guitars and synthesizers. But there’s also pride and grandeur in his phrasing, the way he seems entranced with the bounding melody he’s written: it’s a songwriter listening to the final run-through, the happy end of a weary task.

“Architects” hangs between the bright youth of A major (the verses) and the weariness of B minor (the bridges), clashing the two keys in the chorus (the choruses closes in A major, but it’s a tentative victory). The weave of guitar tracks is a secret Tin Machine reunion—Kevin Armstrong and Gabrels, battling each other one last time. Mike Garson closes the show, ending his solo with a decelerando three-note figure that, if it wasn’t for the fade, sounds as if it would’ve slowed to an utter crawl, each note sounded alone, not linked by any melody, like the “architects eyes” of the song’s title.

10. Is there concrete all around, or is it in my head?

Recorded possibly late 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and January-February 1995, at the Hit Factory, NYC. Only performed during the Outside tour in 1995-1996.

Top to bottom: Pedro Ramos, “MOMA, New York, November 1995.”; Richard Rogers, Channel 4 Headquarters, London (1994); Philip Johnson, Chapel of St. Basil, Houston (1992).


No Control

April 8, 2013

95berlin

No Control.

“No Control” came together quickly, at the tail end of the last Outside sessions in New York: it was possibly the last track completed for the album. In his diary, Eno said much of the track was done in an hour, including a Bowie vocal that left him in awe: “Watching him tune it to just the right pitch of sincerity and parody was one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever seen in a studio.”

Bowie starts with an octave-doubled vocal for the verses; it’s a warning to a collective “you” from someone already condemned, the melody confined to a handful of notes and tethered to the song’s basic harmonic progression (A major moving to its flattened VII chord, G, on “deranged“). He shifts to a wider-ranging, ascending melody in the bridge, with a loftiness in his now-single-tracked intonation (“If I could control…tomorrow’s haze“), over the same progression in G major (a move to F on “darkened shore“).

But in the second bridge, Bowie introduces what Eno had noticed him fine-tuning: a blend of camp and “realism.” You’ve gotta have a scheme, You’ve gotta have a plan! It’s as if a minor character from Oklahoma! has turned up in Oxford Town, trying to impart some homespun common sense (is he exhorting the likes of Leon Blank or Ramona Stone to plan their murders more thoroughly?). Repeating this move in the final bridge, which extends into the coda, Bowie concludes in a run where he scrapes out every vowel he comes across: “I caaan’t be-lieeeve…I’ve noo con-trool…it’s all de-raaaaaanged, DE-raaaaaanged.”

This was an old Bowie trick, going back to “I’m Not Losing Sleep” and “London Boys”: setting up a lyrical scenario (often a “street” scene) and then pulling back to reveal the stage lights and scrim, ending with a Judy Garland moment in the coda. (Garland’s version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” an interpretation of which Bowie used to close sets in 1966, was the godmother of all of this.) The arrangement of “No Control” at times parallels Bowie’s vocal strategy—the purling synthesizers in the intro and verse are disrupted by Reeves Gabrels’ distorted, singing guitar and a squalling keyboard that crops up in the bridge, eats into the following verse and finally gets an eight-bar solo. Bowie’s move to “Broadway” vocalese in the second bridge comes during a feeling of dislocation in the music, as the harmonic “pad” on keyboard vanishes, leaving only Carlos Alomar’s rhythm guitar to tack things down.

The closing “I’m deranged” line suggests that “No Control” came out of that slightly-older composition. As with his other last-minute songs for Outside, Bowie sharpened his writing by ditching his Verbasiser cut-up lyric generator and, in most cases, his art-murder “narrative.” Instead he trusted his instincts, free-associating lyrics, even at times in the vocal booth: lines like “stay away from the future” or “don’t tell God your plans” have the aphoristic oddness of the best of his Seventies songs. “No Control” is one of the Bowie tracks that sum up his career in miniature (which is also to say if you hate Bowie, it will remind you why). But it got lost in the over-heaped platter that is Outside, Bowie never played the song live, and “No Control” became a footnote.

Recorded 20 January-February 1995. An instrumental mix appeared on a Dutch promo CD in 1998.

Top: Ted Sherarts, “March 29, 1995, Berlin.”


Hallo Spaceboy

April 2, 2013

chloe95

Hallo Spaceboy.
Hallo Spaceboy (Pet Shop Boys remix).
Hallo Spaceboy (Lost In Space mix).
Hallo Spaceboy (Double Click mix).
Hallo Spaceboy (with Nine Inch Nails, first live performance, 1995).
Hallo Spaceboy (with Nine Inch Nails, live, 1995).
Hallo Spaceboy (Later With Jools Holland, 1995).
Hallo Spaceboy (Det Kommer Mera, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (Karel, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (with Pet Shop Boys, TOTP, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (with Pet Shop Boys, Brit Awards, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, Phoenix Festival, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, Loreley Festival, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (with the Foo Fighters, 50th Birthday concert, 1997).
Hallo Spaceboy (Pet Shop Boys, live, 1997).
Hallo Spaceboy (BBC, 2000).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, 2002).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, 2002).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, 2003).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, 2004).

Brion Gysin died of a heart attack on Sunday morning, July 13, 1986. He was the only man I have ever respected. I have admired many others, esteemed and valued others, but respected only him. His presence was regal without a trace of pretension. He was at all times impeccable…Brion was suffering from emphysema and lung cancer. He knew he had only a few weeks to live. I was preparing to go to Paris when Brion died. I have this last glimpse through a letter in her own English, from my friend Rosine Buhler:

“…After occurs a dreamlike talk about to have a large house by the sea in August, the shadowed room where all is burning hot outside. Brion said he knew he would sleep well and was really happy of that good day. He wanted no help to lift himself up from his green armchair, and went to his room. I was watching his tall straight way to walk, his secure path…only kings and wild people have this way.”

William S. Burroughs, introduction to Gysin’s The Last Museum.

Brion Gysin liked to say he was a man from nowhere. Even his name was a mistake: his mother had christened him John Clifford Brian, but a passport clerk, misreading Gysin’s crabbed handwriting, swapped in an “o” for an “a” in the latter name (“like the famous wine of Bordeaux, Haut Brion,” Gysin said.) Born in London during the First World War, which claimed his father, he lived in Canada, New York, where he was a ship welder and Broadway costume designer, Tangier, where he ran a restaurant called The 1001 Nights, whose house band was the Master Musicians of Joujouka, and Paris, where he died.

In life and art he was transient—he was Bowie’s world-roaming Lodger in the flesh. Gysin could never commit to one spouse: he was a poet, historian, mystic, painter, filmmaker, musician, inventor (of “the Dreamachine,” a trance-inducing flickering light-box that he thought would make his fortune and didn’t). He had a habit of leaving a city soon before something occurred—an exhibit, a new publisher—that could have “discovered” him.

For Bowie, Gysin was most obviously influential as being the creator of the cut-up method in 1959; a method that came about, Gysin said, when he tried to apply the techniques of painting and film (collage and montage) to the assembly of words, He started by slicing through a stack of newspapers and making poems out of the shreds. By the mid-Sixties, Bowie was cutting up his lyric sheets, throwing pieces in the air and seeing what came from picking them up; three decades later, he had custom-made software to do the equivalent. But Gysin also served a symbolic role for Bowie, as an image of an unrefined creativity. Gysin made being a dilettante into a noble calling. Life is a game, not a career, as he said.

He might’ve lived a much more traditional artistic life, but he was always outside of that, and that was very much to his advantage as an artist.

John Geiger, on Gysin.

“Hallo Spaceboy” is, among many other things, a eulogy to Gysin: a tribute to a force of motion that was stilled only by death. You’re so sleepy now…your silhouette is so stationary…Don’t you want to be free? Even if Bowie hadn’t consciously intended to reference Gysin (“If I fall, moondust will cover me” (a line heard in the Pet Shop Boys’ remix of “Spaceboy”) were rumored to be Gysin’s last words*), the latter’s ghost still possessed the song. The Pet Shop Boys remix used Gysin’s cut-up to rip a hole in the song, transforming it into a sequel to “Space Oddity,” much to Bowie’s initial dismay.

Unlike friends like Burroughs and rivals like André Breton (who had Gysin’s paintings yanked from a surrealist exhibit in 1935), Gysin left no definitive works; there was no Naked Lunch or Surrealist Manifestos to his name, only a series of pieces scattered across various mediums: scripts, sound poems, novels, calligraphic paintings, the Dreamachine. A body of work treasured by a few, and remaining fundamentally obscure. Gysin’s most public legacy was a method used by rock stars like Bowie and Mick Jagger to write pop lyrics. But Gysin had lived his entire life as a performance. Lacking commercial ambitions and any desire for a mass audience, Gysin was a free agent, a man who spent decades on this planet without having any sort of “proper” occupation (his stint as restauranteur was as domestic as he ever got); he was a figure who earned respect by keeping in flux.

On Outside, Bowie was trying to reconcile, as he’d done time and time before (see the Glass Spider tour), his ambition to be considered an avant-garde artist with his more prosaic reality: that he was a pop star who was still on a major label, and who was still mainly known for singing about Major Tom and dueting with Mick Jagger. So figures like Scott Walker and Gysin wound up in the sediment of Bowie’s art-rock album, as potent but discarded influences, especially in the last stages of recording Outside, when Bowie had scrapped his Leon song-montages in favor of a fresh run of hook-filled pop songs like “Spaceboy.” If he was burying Gysin, he’d do it to the sound of slamming drums.

gysburr

“Spaceboy” is a negative of “Moonage Daydream.” “Daydream” opens with Mick Ronson’s slammed power chords and Bowie’s solo vocal, a double-hook (“ALL-i-GAH-tor! BAM-BLAMMM!”) so captivating that the rest of the song is a homage to it. “Spaceboy” begins with 16 bars of suspense: a swirl of synthesizer loops, an ominous chopping loop mixed right, a distorted guitar line. There’s a sense that something’s coming to break this into pieces, a tornado glimpsed on the horizon, and thirty seconds in the hook finally arrives. Instead of the expected guitars, it’s a moving wall of percussion, a cannonade of electronic beats and crushing 4/4 drums undergirded by a low-mixed bassline and dirtied by static bursts of distorted guitar. It’s a sonic cancer at the heart of the song, perversely giving it strength.

The “Moonage Daydream” intro hook was glam in miniature: here, dream this: go! “Spaceboy” wasn’t open, but an imposition—the hook found you out, hunted you down, and all you could do was submit to it and bang your head. BAMBAMBAMBAMDUNNADUNNADUNNA (there’s a bit of “Detroit Rock City” in it). In the choruses, two distorted guitars spit and tear, shifting from a B to a G chord and back (that’s the main harmonic sequence of the song, which also moves to a brief A major progression in the bridges). When Bowie comes in for the first verse, “Spaceboy” shifts back to its initial state of dread. The beat’s out there, and it’s coming back. By the second verse, a muted strain of it pounds beneath Bowie’s vocal, triggered by “Spaceboy!”; before the second chorus, Bowie holds off the onslaught for a few bars, whispering “moondust” before the door is kicked in. Everything in the mix serves as a counter-rhythm: there are ping-ponged electric guitars, snapping riffs back and forth; later, there’s a mouse-chase across Mike Garson’s piano. A muttering Bowie curses across the spectrum, his inaudible syllables sounding like crash cymbals.

One starting point was Eno’s “Third Uncle” (esp. via Bauhaus); another was the Swiss industrial band the Young Gods, who were as much an influence on Outside as the more-hyped Trent Reznor. Particularly the Gods’ T.V. Sky (1992): “Skin Flowers,” for instance, with its buzz-swaths of guitar and its relentless beat, is an ur-“Spaceboy” (the hollered “OUTSIDE!” also might’ve attracted notice); see also the juxtaposition of guitar loops and percussion fills on “Dame Chance.” (And Bowie’s 20-minute Leon suites seem in part inspired by T.V. Sky‘s closer, a 20-minute song-churn called “Summer Eyes.”)

Conjured up in a handful of days in the studio, “Spaceboy” was a liberating track for Bowie, who rode its beat and reveled in the trash. This chaos is killing me! he screamed, sounding delighted to die, mocking his past selves with “do you like girls or boys? It’s confusing these days.” And some of the song was due to Reeves Gabrels, uncredited.

sapce

In mid-1994, a few months after the first Leon sessions, Gabrels returned to Switzerland to work on overdubs and new recordings with Bowie. No other musicians from the Leon sessions were around (including Eno) except for an occasional visit by Erdal Kizilcay. Towards the end of a month-long stay in Montreux, Gabrels played Bowie an “ambient” instrumental piece, which he then recorded as a demo. Bowie recited some lines over the track, including “moon dust,” which Gabrels said Bowie had found in a book of poems he was reading in the studio (he speculated the poet was John Giorno).

After [Bowie’s] vocal/spoken word tracks were done, I did a bunch of long sustain guitars thru a vocal formant patch from an Eventide 4000 signal processor (which makes it sound like a human voice) and I used a slight variation on the ava rava middle eastern scale,”** Gabrels wrote on his website. That was the end of it. On a subsequent visit to Montreux in late 1994, Gabrels asked about the track, provisionally called “Moondust,” and Bowie said “he didn’t feel there was anything special going on with that piece and that he’d pretty much forgotten about it.”

However, Bowie seemed to have remembered “Moondust” during the final Outside sessions in New York, in January 1995. On 17 January, using Carlos Alomar and the drummer Joey Baron, Bowie broke the song down to a handful of chords, reducing the original track “to almost nothing,” Eno recalled in his diary. “I wrote some lightning chords and spaces…and suddenly, miraculously, we had something.” Bowie quickly came up with the “hallo spaceboy” vocal hook, and the track was completed within days.

Bowie played “Hallo Spaceboy” for Gabrels when the latter turned up at the Hit Factory. “When I pointed out the similarities in harmonic motion [to “Moondust”] and the lyrics (etc.), there was zero interest in doing what the writers I continue to work with would have done, what I have done in this situation, and what I consider to be the fair, honest, and right thing,” Gabrels wrote. Having already fought Bowie and Eno to get co-credit for himself, Kizilcay and Sterling Campbell for Leon songs like “Hearts Filthy Lesson” and the segues, Gabrels felt he couldn’t win on a new front. “Because…I will always owe David a debt of thanks for dragging me into the music major leagues…I eventually dropped the subject.”

But a few years after an apparently sharp breakup with Bowie, Gabrels was ready to let it rip. “The track “Spaceboy” follows the chord changes of my original “ambient” track which was dismissed as just being “ambient” and not really a song or contributing to the existence of “Spaceboy” (which if it did contribute, writing credit should be shared). At its most basic level, [if] I hadn’t come up with the ambient track, that ball would would never have rolled itself into a song. I found it odd to have my original piece of music treated as though ambient music has no chord changes or melody and that people who write ambient music cannot copyright their songs to protect their ideas as it isn’t really writing music. (Someone should tell Eno.) What I really wonder about is the poet who wrote “Moondust”…his name isn’t in the writing credits either. But then again those are just words in a certain order, right?

Bowie has never commented on this claim, and to be fair we only have Gabrels’ side of the story, from ten years ago; Gabrels has never released “Moondust” for people to make their own comparisons. From Eno’s diary entry, it seems that the track was pretty heavily overhauled, from new guitar riffs to new chords, and one can see Bowie’s perspective: “Spaceboy” was a new song he had alchemized out of an unpromising ambient jam track. But this begs the question of who actually “authors” rock songs, as Bowie’s songwriting credits can seem arbitrary: Mick Ronson never got a single credit for songs that he obviously contributed riffs and melodies to; Dennis Davis and George Murray are credited for “Breaking Glass” but not “Stay,” and so on.

But God can be an ironist sometimes: Bowie’s “stolen” song was soon enough stolen from him.

boyspace

Writers don’t own their words. Since when do words belong to anybody? ‘Your very own words,’ indeed! And who are you?

Gysin, “Cut-Ups Self-Explained,” Brion Gysin Let the Mice In.

Neil Tennant had started as a music journalist, so he had an eye for a lead. When Outside was released, he saw an obvious interpretation of “Spaceboy” that its author apparently hadn’t considered, or had deliberately avoided. In none of the dozens of interviews Bowie gave to promote Outside did he say that “Spaceboy” was connected to “Space Oddity” and “Ashes to Ashes.” (He even directly denied the connection during a press conference: “I only used [the word] ‘space’—there’s nothing about it that’s even remotely like ‘Space Oddity,’ frankly.”] When the Pet Shop Boys offered to remix “Spaceboy,” Bowie quickly agreed, as he seemingly let anyone remix his songs. But when Tennant told Bowie he was going to sing new lyrics and would use “Space Oddity” to get them, Bowie was taken aback by Tennant’s “nerve.” He went into the studio with Tennant, allegedly to get the performance right, but one wonders if he was irked about it.

After all, Outside was supposed to be his fresh, pre-millennial record, crafted to speak to a new audience, and now here was Major Tom/Starman come back again. The revised “Spaceboy” threatened to convert the project into yet another spew of Baby Boomer nostalgia, to throw Bowie back into his past. What saved “Spaceboy” from being cheap audience-bait was Tennant’s use of cut-up. He broke the well-worn words of “Space Oddity” into strange, fresh alignments:

Ground to major bye-bye Tom
Dead the circuit countdown’s wrong
Planet Earth is control on?

Still, the remix shifted the song’s axis. Bowie had written off Major Tom on “Ashes to Ashes”: he’d drifted off into the inexplicable and was content to stay there, roll end credits. Now, with Tennant’s new verse in “Spaceboy”, Bowie had been cast as Major Tom again, against his will; he was a fly caught on wax paper. This chaos is killing me! now became the words of Major Tom, strung out in heaven, worn through with transcendence and longing for death. Bye bye love! No longer just Gysin, dying in Paris, but Bowie’s own legend, being exhumed only to be buried again.

All Bowie could do was play along. The remix was issued as Outside‘s third single and it nearly broke the top 10 in the UK—it was Bowie’s highest charting post-1995 until “Where Are We Now?” this year. In the two performances Bowie and the Pet Shop Boys gave of it, Bowie looked immaculate and ageless, thrashing about on stage, but he also looked trapped. Tennant calmly sang (or mimed) his interrogation, while Bowie struggled against a song that now seemed to confine him.

It was a fitting ending, or as fitting as you get these days. “Spaceboy,” one of the last great Bowie pop moments, never quite seemed his own property; it was fluid, a coalescing held together by a beat that seemed to invade it. Bowie spent the last decade of his performing life singing “Spaceboy” again and again, trying to get it back under his thumb, sometimes succeeding (using three drummers to beat the song into shape at his 50th birthday party), sometimes seeming as though he was covering it.

Recorded ca. January-February 1995, Hit Factory, NYC. Released, in its Pet Shop Boys form, as a single in February 1996 (BMG/RCA 74321 353847, #12 UK). A 12″ remix, the Lost in Space mix and the Double Click mix were included on a promo 12″ and later on the 2-CD Outside reissue. “Spaceboy” was played on seemingly every TV show in Europe, including Jools Holland (2 December 1995); Det Kommer Mera (Sweden) 19 January 1996; Taratata (France) 26 January 1996; Karel (Dutch) 29 January 1996, and a broadcast from the BBC Radio Theatre on 27 June 2000. A recording from the Phoenix Festival in 1996 was issued on a bonus CD single that came with the French edition of Earthling. “Spaceboy” was a regular in most of Bowie’s last decade of touring.

Sources: Back in No Time: The Brion Gysin Reader (ed. Jason Weiss); John Geiger, Nothing Is True–Everything Is Permitted (pretty much the only Gysin bio).

* Nicholas Pegg wrote without attribution that “if I fall, moondust will cover me” was rumored to be Gysin’s last words. I’ve found no other reference to this, via the Internet and by rummaging through the libraries of Smith College and Amherst College, so I’ll conclude this claim is false unless someone points me to a source that I’ve missed. Gysin did use “moondust” in his novel The Process (1969) (“a familiar indigo rag flutters out of the sand where I look for my guide to find him, too, buried in moondust.“) I’ve found no reference to a Giorno poem mentioning “moon dust” either. The line could just as well be Bowie’s.

** I think Gabrels meant the Ahava Rabbah, or the Phrygian dominant scale. Maybe not? Ava rava, anyone?

Top: Chloe Sevigny, Kids (Clark, 1995); Gysin, Burroughs and stone-faced ancestors (via BrionGysin.com); various Spaceboys.


I’m Deranged

March 26, 2013

epiphany

I’m Deranged.
I’m Deranged (alternate mix, unreleased).
I’m Deranged (edit, Lost Highway soundtrack.)
I’m Deranged (alternate edit, Lost Highway).
I’m Deranged (rehearsal, 1995).
I’m Deranged (first live performance, 1995).
I’m Deranged (“jungle” version, live, 1997).

But if those walls could talk! [The inmates’] whole process and how they instinctively jumped from symbol to symbol in their narratives and things. One man is called the Angel Man—and in fact he turns up in one of the songs in the end—he believed he was an angel and said [German Angel Man voice], “I was exactly who I was up until the 5th of February, 1948, and then I became an angel…it was just after lunch.” And from that point, he believed that his old person disappeared and his angel took over him. He was totally reborn at that moment.

Bowie, interview with Moon Zappa, Ray Gun, 1995.

Another casualty of Outside‘s sequencing was “I’m Deranged,” the sixteenth of nineteen tracks and which, to the exhausted ear, seemed a lengthy retread of earlier songs: it had another cracked Mike Garson piano solo, another set of Brian Eno’s Nerve Net-vintage synth and drum loops, yet another Bowie salmagundi of a lyric with shadows of violence and (overtly here) insanity.

Inspired by his and Eno’s trip to the Gugging Psychiatric Clinic in 1994 (from which Bowie took the image of the “Angel Man,” see above), Bowie chopped up a provisional lyric via his Verbasizer computer program, then crafted a run of lines that followed eddies of thought and made shotgun marriages of vowel sounds (“be real” becomes “before we reel”; “blonde” quickly summons “beyond”). The lyric’s perspective isn’t that of a madman as much as someone with romantic hopes of growing mad, with an undercurrent of masochism (“I’d start to believe…if I were to bleed,” Bowie sings, gently extending his long Es) and a few phrases suggesting that Bowie had been reading John Rechy again (“cruise me baby,” “the fist of love”).

He later assigned “I’m Deranged” to his Artist/Minotaur figure (see “Wishful Beginnings”) but the conceit was wearing thin by this point, and any attempt to shoehorn “Deranged” into the “Nathan Adler” storyline would devote far more time than its author ever did. Its allegiances are with two other tracks on the record—the title song, for which “Deranged” seems a counterpart, inspired by the same Gugging visit and suggesting sensory derangement and “outsider” art; and “No Control,” with which “Deranged” shares a lyrical and textural mood.

Built over a repeated four-chord progression in F minor,* “Deranged” seems mainly Eno’s work, though one ancestor was Bowie and Nile Rodgers’ “Real Cool World” (there’s also an echo of “Billie Jean” in its opening four-note synth hook), and there’s a tinniness at times to the mix: take the anemic drum machine fill at 3:31, beats seemingly generated by a Sega Genesis. Garson’s two piano interludes also lack surprise; it’s as if Eno had triggered a sampler to play “Off-Kilter Garson Solo in F Minor” at various cue marks. There apparently were some brutal revisions: Reeves Gabrels said he worked for days on “serious orchestrated guitar stuff” for “Deranged” that was eventually scrapped, while Carlos Alomar recalled a three-part harmony track that also got the axe.

Its best element is Bowie’s vocal: while there’s a somber precision to his opening lines, in the second verse, Bowie defaces his melody, weighing and sounding each word as if he can’t recall how it’s pronounced, getting mired in each syllable, building up to the last repeats of “I’m deraaaanged,” where he bloats and strangles the latter word.

The track’s harmonic stasis and ominous mood better suited the sequence David Lynch used it for on Lost Highway—scoring a driver’s-eye shot of a sped-up stream of highway center lines, a loop of ceaseless, violent motion. “Deranged” also improved in concert, once the song was prised loose from its album mix and given fresh, bloody life by the Outside and Earthling tour bands.

Recorded ca. January-February 1995, Hit Factory, NYC. A remixed and edited (2:37) version appeared on the Lost Highway OST, released 18 February 1997 (a longer edit was used for the end credits).

* The progression seems to be i-II7-v-III-i (Fm-G7-Cm-A flat-Fm), with the major chords staggering the progress of F minor to its dominant, C minor, and back home again.

Top: Ted Barron, “Epiphany,” Brooklyn, 1995.


The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)

March 21, 2013

hell

The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (alternate mix).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (rehearsal, 1995).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (The White Room, 1995).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (Taratata, 1995).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (Karel, 1996).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (live, 1996).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (live, 50th Birthday Concert, 1997).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (live, 1997).

Given one of the most ungainly titles in the Bowie catalog, “The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)” also got a tough sequencing—the only song on Outside to be bracketed between character segues (“Algeria Touchshriek” and “I Am With Name”). So “Voyeur” can often be overlooked, especially by those wearied of the album by track 11, as it can seem superfluous, tilling in the same grim field as “The Motel,” “Small Plot of Land” and “Wishful Beginnings.

“Voyeur,” which Bowie wrote with Brian Eno and apparently cut in the latter Outside sessions, is the last of the Scott Walker-haunted pieces on the record (see the High Scott phrasing of “as the sooohber Philistine“) and it’s the last song in this survey which could have fit into the original Leon. That said, “Voyeur” also feels transitional, open. With its subtle devotion to rhythm (see Joey Baron’s tom fills, holding ground against buzzing insurgencies of electronic percussion) and the density and flash of its production—it has the feel of being a few Eno loops that flowered into something colossal—“Voyeur” points towards Earthling as much as “Hallo Spaceboy” does.

Said to be the perspective of Bowie’s nebulous Artist/Minotaur figure (see “Wishful Beginnings”), the lyric references various Bowie hobbyhorses of the time: body art, scarification, possibly consensual torture (“the screw….is a tightening atrocity…the research has pierced all extremes of my sex“). The chorus hook, “turn and turn again,” is a pre-millennial blues, suggesting that all this angst and bloody tribalism is just a reiteration, weak echoes of patterns from centuries before. The chorus line’s also a Dylan call-back (see “Percy’s Song”) while the song’s last line, “call it a day,” sings back to the coda of “Bewlay Brothers.”

As a performance it’s a group devotion to sudden movements–the “O Superman” vocal loops, Bowie’s stage magician phrasing in the first verses, Mike Garson’s inflictions on the treble keys of his piano, a propulsive bassline by Erdal Kizilcay and the song’s climactic, jarring key change, followed by a new, eerie Bowie top melody and the sudden incursion of Reeves Gabrels, whose guitar first obscures [edit: his own] twin-tracked arpeggios and then lays the track to waste over its closing minute. It’s the sonic parallel to an implied brutality in the title: Harry Truman’s declaration to Japan, in July 1945, that the alternative to its unconditional surrender “is prompt and utter destruction.” The A-bombs fell two weeks later.

Recorded ca. January-February 1995, Hit Factory, NYC. Bowie enjoyed playing “Voyeur” live, and many of its recorded performances are the match of the studio take. Performed on the Outside tour, The White Room (Channel 4) on 14 December 1995, Taratata (France) on 26 January 1996 (but possibly recorded on 10 December 1995), Karel (Dutch TV) on 29 January 1996 and during the Earthling tour, including Bowie’s 50th Anniversary concert. A live version from Rio, 2 November 1997, is on liveandwell.com.

Top: Dr. Gull makes a house call, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, From Hell (Vol. 7, April 1995).


We Prick You

March 18, 2013

b&B

We Prick You.
We Prick You (alternate mix, unfinished vocal).
We Prick You (rehearsal, 1995).
We Prick You (first live performance, 1995).
We Prick You (live, 1995).
We Prick You (live, Loreley Festival, 1996).

Having revived Tin Machine for the title song of Outside, Bowie perhaps had the Machine on his mind for “We Prick You,” his hostile takeover of an Eno drum track. With a refrain that originally went “we fuck you we fuck you we fuck you” and lines like “dripping on the end of a gun,” it easily could’ve been a crass, wearisome track, in line with the Machine at its most tasteless. Instead “We Prick You” was punchy, catchy and strange, another in a set of songs on Outside that found Bowie managing to refine his work from the past decade: Outside can seem like the music Bowie thought he was making in 1987 or 1989, a better realization of his ambitions.

Eno provided the drum ‘n’ bass-lite loops and the various synth colors, like the “marimba” fills that wink in and out and the main four-note synth riff that repeats throughout, and which slightly distorts towards the close (the track was originally called “Robot Punk”). But he was also heard in Bowie’s array of bizarre backing vocals, some of which sound like zombified Eton toffs, and which could all hail from the funny-voice bestiary of Eno’s “Dead Finks Don’t Talk.”* Bowie had even wanted to sample Camille Pagila for the “you show respect, even if you disagree” tag, but wound up doing it himself via varispeed (Bowie kept trying Paglia’s office, but she thought it was a joke and never called him back). On stage Bowie responded to this voice as if it was an officious God, talking back and shaking his head.

“We Prick You” moves from spare beginnings (a bassline over two drum loops, mixed far left and right, that’s joined, in eight-bar increments, by a drum machine and two main keyboard tracks) to a chorus that boasts one of the finest latter-day Carlos Alomar guitar riffs, a piece of barbed funk that calls back to the Miracles’ “Love Machine.” Alomar was just one hook in a track devoted to them—the “I’m Not in Love“-esque loops of endless “ooohs” high in the mix in later verses, the goonish counter-melodies (“shoes, shoes, little white shoes“), Bowie’s righteously sung “TELL the TRUTH! TELL the TRUTH!,” and the title line, repeated thrice like an anathema, and which is occasionally pummeled by snare drum fills.

The lyric has a similar density, working as: a blunt sex joke; a more subtle sex joke (“wanna come quick, then die”) playing on the phrase “little death” as orgasm; a feminist statement (the chorus could be Woman putting Man on trial, the first lines yelled by the prosecutor, the title line being the defendant’s confession); the trial of Leon Blank in Bowie’s anti-narrative; an occult reference (the alchemical symbol of Christ being pierced with a spear); and the idea of sex as a form of bodily mutilation, a variation of Ron Athey’s 4 Scenes in a Harsh Life, where Athey had stuck needles into his arms and scalp during his performance. A collection and implosion of ideas and sounds, signifying nothing and seemingly everything, “We Prick You” is Bowie at his purest.

Recorded ca. January-February 1995, Hit Factory, NYC. In 2012, another mix of “We Prick You” surfaced (see above) with some unfinished Bowie vocals; it was possibly an outtake from the Hit Factory sessions. Played only during the Outside tour.

* One of the voices on “Dead Finks” is Eno’s dead-on parody of Bryan Ferry.

Top: Ambitious man, in search of steady employment, consults with established power couple at the Q Awards, 1995. (Jarvis Cocker presented the “Q Inspiration Award” to Bowie and Eno that night.)


Outside

March 14, 2013

katmandu

Now (Tin Machine, live, 1989).
Outside.
Outside (first live performance, 1995).
Outside (live, 1995).
Outside (live, Loreley, 1996).
Outside (live, Gail Ann Dorsey vocal, 1997).

Basically I haven’t liked a lot of music I’ve been doing in the past few years. I forgot that I’m not a musician and never have been. I’ve always wanted to be a film director.” So Bowie told the 17 year-old Cameron Crowe, during an interview in Los Angeles in May 1975. While much of what Bowie said to Crowe was cocaine-fueled gibberish, the baiting of a young, credulous journalist, this small self-insight explains in part what happened to a record that Bowie made two decades later.

If you consider Outside as an art film in the guise of an album, then the revisions Bowie made to the project in early 1995—essentially “normalizing” the record with a set of new, catchier songs that had little, if anything, to do with his original art-murder-anti-narrative—were the equivalent of a reshoot, recasting players and cutting a new edit. It’s as though Bowie had been his own test audience, and had found the material lacking after a poor screening. And sure, he was looking for a label to distribute the album, which would be an easier sell if it was a collection of “David Bowie songs with weird spoken bits” rather than 20-minute collages of song-slivers and weird spoken bits.

So, back to work. One of Bowie’s first moves was to reclaim a lost Tin Machine song, “Now,” which Bowie had co-written with the Machine’s fifth member, the guitarist Kevin Armstrong.* “Now” was played only twice during the Machine’s brief 1989 tour, and it’s unknown whether the band cut a version of song in the studio for either of their records (no takes are circulating).

“Now” itself revised the past: it developed out of Bowie’s reworking of “Look Back in Anger” in 1988, his first collaboration with Reeves Gabrels.** “Now,” in its live performances, began and closed with the pummeling guitar maelstrom from the revised “Anger.” Midway through, the song downshifted into a set of moody eight-bar verses and bridges, built on an ascending four-note bass hook. One reason “Now” didn’t make the grade, apparently, was that Bowie wasn’t happy with some of the verses he’d written (he apologized to the crowd on the song’s debut): “Ah! I need your love! Talk about love!” was a bit too Sammy Hagar for his liking.

But Bowie had a habit of keeping his potentially strong songs on retainer, holding back on finishing the pieces until he felt the mood was right (most notably “Bring Me the Disco King,” a song that he kicked around for nearly a decade). So perhaps rather than waste “Now” as an album track on Tin Machine II, he felt it was meant for grander things. And so it was: Bowie turned “Now” into the title song/overture/prologue to his art rock concept record.

While there’s a domesticated version of the “Look Back in Anger” intro as a lead-in, “Outside” itself is fairly muted, reserved—Bowie holds off on moving to his high register until the second bridge, and doesn’t use his octave double-tracking until the third verse. (On stage, he usually sang the first verses and bridges seated, then rose to his feet for the climactic section.) The track’s harmonic base is two “horn” lines, mixed left and right (they seem to be synthesizers, though it’s possible Bowie’s playing baritone saxophone on the right-mixed track), that parallel the ascending bassline, and what sounds like Carlos Alomar playing arpeggios on acoustic guitar—Gabrels comes in for the last two bridges, first shadowing the ascending horn/bassline, then soloing off of it. And “Outside” is driven by a tremendous performance by Joey Baron (possibly Sterling Campbell) on drums: the subtle shift in the drum pattern that triggers the moves to the bridges, or the machine-gun tom fills at 2:38. Along with the various fills, sweeteners and oddities—a tambourine in the first verse, chimes and congas in the second, Eno squiggles throughout—there’s a guitar solo that’s minimalist by Gabrels standards.

A line in “Now” about “going to the outskirts of town” possibly suggested the title change, but Bowie also had been talking up the merits of “outsider” art to interviewers, and there are a few lines in his revised lyric that call back to his and Eno’s trip to Gugging Asylum (“the crazed in the hot zone“). Meant as a curtain-raiser for the 17 tracks to come, “Outside” serves well enough as the album’s master of ceremonies. But it was also a statement of purpose for Bowie. After a decade of disappointments, bafflements and false starts, “Outside” was a public bid for attention, Bowie promising that this record was something new, that it was committed to the present:Now….not tomorrow…It happens today. In a rock culture so often devoted to nostalgia and past glories, it remains a worthy, if often ignored, demand.

“Now” debuted at the Machine’s 29 June 1989 show in the National Ballroom, Kilburn, and it opened the band’s set at St. George’s Hall, Bradford, UK, on 2 July 1989. These remain its only circulating performances. “Outside” was recorded ca. January-February 1995 at the Hit Factory, NYC. Bowie usually had Gail Ann Dorsey sing lead on it during the Earthling tour.

* Oddly enough, while Armstrong played on Outside (he’s credited for “Thru These Architects Eyes”), he apparently didn’t play on his own song, at least according to the credits and the bios.

** “Anger” was one of the few “classic” songs that Bowie played on the Outside tour.

Top: Takahiro Fujita, “Kathmandu, 1995.”