Mother

October 4, 2013

1998_10-Urlaub London mit Bruno

Mother (John Lennon, 1970).
Mother (Bowie, 1998).

At the corner of the settee nearest the fire, beneath a television which has long ceased to flicker its soundless images, sits a familiar figure, eyes half closed, head bowed, nodding gently, almost imperceptibly, to the pain and anger of John Lennon’s “Mother”, growling out of a loudspeaker at each corner of the spacious hunting lodge room…you might think he was falling asleep were it not for the slight tightening of the eyebrowless forehead at the compelling anguish of the shrieking fade-out.

Martin Hayman, “Outside David Bowie…Is The Closest You’re Gonna Get,” Rock, 8 October 1973.

Hayman was interviewing David Bowie at the Château d’Hérouville during the making of Pin-Ups. Twenty-five years later, Bowie was still taken by Lennon’s “Mother,” enough to record a version of the song with Tony Visconti.

Bowie’s “Mother” was intended for a tribute album meant to mark Lennon’s would-have-been 60th birthday in October 2000. The commemorative Lennon industry was thriving in the late Nineties. Following the Beatles’ Anthology series and Lennon’s return to the pop charts, albeit in ghost form, via “Free As a Bird,” there was the Lennon Anthology, a four-disc box of outtakes released for Christmas 1998. The all-star Lennon tribute CD, intended as the counterpart of an all-star tribute birthday concert, would cap this latest exhumation.

At the center of all that fame and wealth and adulation was just a lonely little kid.

Arthur Janov, on Lennon in 1970.

“Mother” had led off Lennon’s first solo LP, Plastic Ono Band (it was also the single). It was a purge of a song. Neither his mother Julia nor his father Alf had been capable of raising him, flitting in and out of his childhood, using him as a bargaining chip in their chaotic relationship. His father eventually abandoned him; Julia was struck by a car and killed in 1958.

Her death set the 18-year-old Lennon off; it hardened him, made him caustic, cruel, obsessed with rock ‘n’ roll (“rock and roll was real: everything else was unreal,” he later said). As critics like Ian MacDonald noted, Julia was a muse for Lennon the composer: her image, a nurturing artistic mother/lover figure, lies at the heart of songs like “Yes It Is” and “Girl.” Upon meeting Yoko Ono, his muse made flesh, Lennon could finally relinquish Julia, which he did in the gorgeous song he titled after her on the White Album, a love ballad and elegy in one (“her hair of floating sky is shimmering, glimmering..in the sun,” both the sight of a lover and of his mother lying dead in a Liverpool street).

But he wasn’t done with her yet. The Plastic Ono Band album came out of Lennon and Ono’s “primal scream” sessions with Arthur Janov in 1970. The therapy, which entailed sitting in a room and screaming at the top of your lungs for hours, a sort of bloodletting for the soul, also helped Lennon get over his usual dislike of his singing voice, giving him license to shriek his songs out. So “Mother,” a curse on childhood, builds from ruminative verses to splenetic refrains, the latter growing in fervor with each repeat, Lennon’s larynx-scraping “dooon’t GOOOOs” matched by the descending knife-blows of “daddy-come-home.”* While its lyric was open, so that anyone could see themselves in the words, the pain that Lennon inflicted on his phrasings made it an intensely, uncomfortably personal recording, in a way that “Girl” or even “Julia” wasn’t. “Mother” seemed uncoverable. Naturally, Bowie tried.

mother

Lennon had been Bowie’s inspiration and friend, and perhaps because of this, Bowie proved incapable of interpreting Lennon’s songs with any perspective. He fell into gush or blundered through them: his takes on “Across the Universe,” “Imagine,” and “Working Class Hero” range from the misguided to the dreadful.

For “Mother” he recorded a demo in Nassau with Reeves Gabrels, an unknown session organ player and Andy Newmark (the latter’s first appearance on a Bowie record since Young Americans) on drums, then took the tape to New York to have Visconti craft it into releasable shape during the “Safe In This Sky Life” sessions. He and Visconti decided to keep his original vocal from the demo, despite it having some bleed-through from Newmark’s drums (Bowie did a few punch-ins, which required Visconti to track down the same microphone that Bowie had used in the Bahamas). They added Jordan Rudess’ piano (which quotes from Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels” in the second verse) and Visconti’s bass and harmony vocals (along with Richard Barone). Visconti later said that “it’s [not] the most polished production of our careers. The recording was made on that now defunct digital system ADAT and it was one of my first attempts at manipulating music in a computer.”

It’s not the murky production that’s most at fault here, nor the arrangement (though Gabrels’ guitar in the choruses is a garish interloper at a wake). It’s that Bowie had set himself an impossible task: he couldn’t physically sing with as much mania and spleen as Lennon had (even Lennon couldn’t have done it after 1971 or so), but the song’s emotive fury, its petulance and its raw neediness (it’s an adult regressed to a child, screaming demands at his absent parents) demanded some unhinged passion from its interpreter.

But Bowie treated the song with reverence, as if making a church piece of it; he was careful not to embarrass himself, singing the verses in his rich lower register and not going too far over the top for the choruses. Where Lennon sang his lines as if arguing with ghosts, Bowie sang as if he was back in the Château d’Hérouville, singing along to Lennon’s record on the turntable. His “Mother” is tasteful and pointless: it gives nothing back to the song, it just takes. Not that it mattered. For still-obscure reasons, Ono scrapped the tribute CD idea and Bowie’s final Lennon tribute remains, as of this date, unreleased.

Recorded ca. August-September 1998, Nassau and New York.

* There’s also the sad irony that while Lennon was singing this, he was barely in touch with his own seven-year-old son, who he’d named after his late mother.

Top: “ShreddtoHell,” “London mit Bruno,” 1998; “Mother” US 45 sleeve.

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Safe

October 2, 2013

ultimos amarres

Safe (remake of “Safe in this Sky Life”).

It is not the literal past that rules us, save, possibly, in a biological sense. It is images of the past. These are often as highly structured and selective as myths. Images and symbolic constructs of the past are imprinted, almost in the manner of genetic information, on our sensibility. Each new historical era mirrors itself in the picture and active mythology of its past or of a past borrowed from other cultures…

George Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle, 1971.1

The past, it almost shimmers down

“Safe.”

What happened in 1998?

The president of the United States was impeached for perjuring himself about a shabby affair. Around the world: wars, calamities, children, television, the usual things. Never mind that. What happened to Bowie? It was the year he finally was consumed by the past.

He entered 1998 still talking up jungle, still acting out Earthling, but he left it readying his next face. This would be the “street clothes” Bowie of the turn of the millennium: flannel shirts, his hair a rat-brown fringe, granny glasses. And as a variant, a wan majordomo figure first seen on the cover of Hours. In either case, this new Bowie came off as something like a decommissioned rock star; an aging hipster caretaker of his past lives.

Sure, he’d changed his look before; he’d soon change it again. But any subsequent changes would be minor cosmetic variations on this image. The “new” Bowie of 1999 would be his last edition. He stopped here. As the cliche has it, he finally fell to earth.

He’d always had a curatorial side, surprising fans with the carefully-deployed antique, weaving a fresh song over the bones of an old one. But there was also his obverse: the man devoted to the present, seemingly bent on claiming a stake in the future: an artist happy to be a tuning fork for more discordant sounds, the ambassador of the weird to the straight world.

Now the future side of him went into remission. Rather than make another evasive maneuver like Tin Machine, he went inward, back into his old music. Not all at once (his next album would shuttle between a world-weary tone and the last squawks of his mapgie self); he edged into rock classicism as one does a hot bath. But his music became, more and more, extensions to and rewrites of his old work, rather than attempts to claim new territories. It began, as these things do, with the cartoon Rugrats.

golmin

Karyn Rachtman, an executive producer and musical director of the first Rugrats film, asked Bowie to contribute a song. Rachtman (sister of Ricky, late of Headbanger’s Ball) wanted to make the soundtrack hip. This was the coming thing: children’s entertainment had to appeal to parents, to assure them they hadn’t lost their souls by reproducing. So she got Iggy Pop, Beck, Patti Smith, No Doubt and Elvis Costello (the last two in a duet). From Bowie, she wanted a proper “David Bowie song.” Ziggy Stardust guitars, sweeping strings, the Thin White Duke croon. (“A little bit of ‘Space Oddity,’ ‘”Heroes”‘ and ‘Absolute Beginners’ rolled into one,” its producer said). An amalgam of the popular imagination’s Bowie. And Bowie gave her what she wanted.

As the song, “Safe In This Sky Life,” was never released or bootlegged, all we have to go by are descriptions of its making, which was elaborate. The track featured a 24-piece string section, Reeves Gabrels on guitar (he’d co-written the song), harmony vocals by Richard Barone (the Bongos), drums by Clem Burke (Blondie) and keyboards by Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater). To produce it, Bowie had dialed up his past.

Tony Visconti hadn’t worked with, or even talked to, Bowie in 15 years. There were reportedly sore feelings on both sides, Visconti for being elbowed out of Let’s Dance and for his contributions to the “Berlin” records erased in the press; Bowie for Visconti’s alleged verbosity in interviews.2 Visconti said the reconciliation, when it came, was simple: Bowie just called him up one day and asked him to make a record. As it happened, Visconti reappeared just as Bowie’s relationship with Gabrels had begun to fray. By the end of 1999, Gabrels was gone; Visconti has been Bowie’s collaborator ever since.

“Safe in This Sky Life” was cut from the Rugrats film during editing, after the sequence for which it was intended was deleted. There was apparently nowhere else in the movie for the song to go (not even over the end credits?). “He delivered a song far beyond my wildest dreams, and now I can’t even use it,” Rachtman lamented to the press. Bowie, saying that the song “doesn’t fit in with what I’m doing at the moment,” put it on the shelf.

rugrta

The released version of “Safe” is one Bowie and Visconti recorded during the Heathen sessions in 2001. All that remains in it from the 1998 take are the string tracks, Visconti said.

So it’s difficult, even foolhardy, to speculate what the original sounded like based on its remake. The guitars, played possibly by Mark Plati or Bowie himself, do sound as if they’re tracing over Gabrels’ original lines. But much of  “Safe” feels as if you’ve heard it somewhere before in the Bowie catalog. The verses begin with close to the same top melody as “The Supermen” (cf. “When all the world was heavy hung” to “frozen to the glass again“). There’s a “period” synthesizer effect that sounds like the Stylophone of “Space Oddity” at times. Visconti’s strings, anticipating and parrying the vocal, have a massed lushness that calls back to the likes of “Win” or “In the Heat of the Morning.”

It’s a song as a series of sensory triggers: its dramatic moments—the rising chord progression in the verses, the guitar-smeared shifts to the chorus, the long-held “skyyyliiiiiifes”—suggest a common idea of a “great” Bowie song. “Safe” rewarded your perseverance as a fan: this is what you wanted, and here it is, better than you imagined. (Matt Chamberlain’s drumming could power a small city). It’s Bowie starring as “Bowie”; it was as if he was covering himself. The lyric also carefully matches a gentle conservatism (safety, acceptance, resignation) with a spiritual yearning—after all, it began as a song for hip parents. It’s a lovely song, one of his best of the period, and there’s something hollow inside it.

velvet

So what did he think about Glam being big again?

“Was it really?” he says in his campest ‘suits you sir’ voice. “I felt that it was a synthetic recycling on the back of the belief that Velvet Goldmine would be a smash movie and be able to sell all those spin-off books and records. It was PR led. It didn’t come from the streets. When I saw the film I thought the best thing about it was the gay scenes, the only successful part of the film frankly. The film didn’t understand how innocent everyone was then about what they were getting into,” he says, pausing for a moment. “Also there was a lot more shopping.”

Bowie, interview by Andrew Davies, The Big Issue, January 1999.

When Bowie and Visconti first cut “Safe,” glam nostalgia was thick in the air, thanks in part to Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, released in autumn 1998. A barely-veiled Bowie biopic as directed by an obsessive Bowiephile (it even has characters based on Kenneth Pitt and Corrinne Schwab), Velvet Goldmine was the middle piece of a trilogy Haynes made about pop stars and stardom. Superstar enacted the tragedy of Karen Carpenter via Barbie dolls; I’m Not There would split Bob Dylan into six incarnations of fan myths, from amphetamine hipster to Guthrie disciple.4

Haynes had sent Bowie an early version of Velvet Goldmine’s script and had asked to use seven songs (“All the Young Dudes,” “Sweet Thing,” “Lady Stardust,” “Moonage Daydream,” Bowie’s cover of “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Lady Grinning Soul,” and the title track). Despite lobbying by Michael Stipe and Kim Gordon, Bowie denied Haynes permission. He didn’t like the script, he said: all that his analogue character, Brian Slade, did was give blow jobs.

You can see his point: Slade, played blankly by Jonathan Rhys-Myers, has no inner life; he’s just a series of beautiful reactions. Haynes’ film was sharp, some of its casting was inspired (Toni Colette’s tragic Angela Bowie), and it was lovingly detailed.5 But for Bowie Goldmine came off as obnoxious and cynical (in perhaps the same way he would find this project misguided and tone-deaf.)6 Haynes film was an aging glam fan’s perspective, rewriting the glam era as a collective fan myth (hence Slade winds up as an Eighties fascist global pop icon, sporting Billy Idol hair). The film’s language was half-remembered Bowie gossip; it played with pieces of Bowie’s life for sport. It cast Bowie as a character in someone else’s drama, where Bowie had always written his own lines.

That said, there was another reason for Bowie’s rejection. In 1998, he was planning a Ziggy Stardust film of his own, and didn’t want his songs appear in what he considered a competitor picture.

golmine

This Ziggy Stardust project was first mentioned in autumn 1998, and it seems to have filled the gap left by the collapse of the Outside sequels and concerts (see the upcoming “Seven”). The grandiosity of the Ziggy plan, its wild scope matched by apparently nothing resembling a budget or a workable blueprint, suited Bowie’s restless mood of the time: his jumping from film to film; his agreeing to host a season of The Hunger; his various immersions in the Internet and video games.

It’s hard to tell just how far the Ziggy project ever got: were there scripts commissioned? sets designed? (probably the latter: he always loved making set models.) Ziggy was supposed to appear in 2002 to commemorate the album’s 30th anniversary. It would be a three-pronged attack. A film (“an objective piece about how [Ziggy] is viewed and perceived by his audience,” Bowie said—so, in other words, Velvet Goldmine), a theater piece (“more internal, more reflective of the immediate repercussions of Ziggy and his effect on the people around him…his close intimates, how he thinks and what his perception of the world really is,” possibly including mime sequences) and “Internet” (the latter would be “pure fun, with hypertext links so you can find out who his mum was, and things like that—a huge exploration of his background. It’s sort of factground, and startlingly info-packed maps and photographs“).

Naturally, there would be tie-ins: a new book of photos by Mick Rock, a DVD with rare concert footage and a double-CD with unearthed and re-recorded Ziggy Stardust outtakes (including the legendary “Black Hole Kids”). In an interview with Radio One’s The Net in 1998, Bowie waxed effusive: “..I’ve found bits and pieces of songs that I obviously had written for [Ziggy Stardust] but never finished off. It’s as if I’ll be complementing what’s already there with other pieces that were started but not actually finished at the time, so they have an authenticity of the period about them. For me, I think it’ll be an extraordinary thing to see what kind of animal it becomes eventually!…It’s just a question of finishing off what might be a 90-second or a two-minute piece, taking it obviously the way it wanted to go and finishing it off and keeping the sound of the material in the period.”

(This idea—Bowie taking a scrap from an old session and working it into a releasable track, is the closest he’s come to explaining alleged “Berlin-era” outtakes like “I Pray Ole.“)

Gabrels thought the project had the potential for disaster. The only way it could have worked, he later said, would be to record the new Ziggy songs at Trident Studios with Ken Scott or Visconti, using only 16-track decks and keeping to the instruments that Mick Ronson and Bowie had used in 1971: Mellotron, Moog, recorder, 12-string acoustic, a single Les Paul guitar with a Cry Baby Wah-Wah pedal. If you’re going for nostalgia, get the details as right as Todd Haynes did. If not, Bowie’s new Ziggy tracks risked sounding like the surviving Beatles’ ghost-duets with John Lennon in the Anthology series: a glossy simulacrum of his old music, made palatable by nostalgia and the indulgence of fans.

The Ziggy project apparently died around the turn of the century. By 2002, when Ziggy Stardust‘s 30th anniversary was only commemorated by a CD that repackaged the Rykodisc extras, Bowie told Rolling Stone that “I’m running like fuck from that [idea]…Can you imagine anything uglier than a nearly 60-year-old Ziggy Stardust? I don’t think so! We actually tried a few years ago to pull a movie together but at every turn it was like…” Ziggy Stardust deserved to remain an idea, a fan memory, he said, rather than “presenting some nerd in a red wig, having run through a really slack arsed movie script.”

ratsfoiledagain

So: a seeming debacle avoided. Yet the Ziggy project still had consumed much of Bowie’s time around the turn of the millennium, and it paralleled his decision to rerecord his old Mod songs for Toy. Both of these, his biggest ambitions in 1999-2000, would wind up as unreleased failures; both were excavations and reworkings of past glories. It’s easy to see why he didn’t have much time for the present. He’d been used to making knight’s moves across the board; now, with his pieces depleted, he was left to devise workable defenses.

“Safe,” a “Bowie-sings-‘Bowie'” track intended for and scrapped by a cartoon soundtrack, and which wound up being issued as its own obscure cover, sums up this period as well as anything could. There’s a majesty in “Safe,” but it’s a borrowed majesty. One line from it in particular could serve as the credo of Bowie’s post-millennial years:

…From now on,
The things will move more slowly…

Recorded (“Safe in This Sky Life”) ca. August 1998, unreleased. “Safe,” cut during the Heathen sessions of July-September 2001, was released as a download for BowieNet subscribers in June 2002, then as a B-side of the “Everybody Says ‘Hi'” CD single on 16 September 2002. The only edition of Heathen on which it appears (in a longer edit) is the rare SACD.

The Ziggy Stardust Companion was especially valuable for this entry, as it’s compiled the most details about Bowie’s reaction to Velvet Goldmine as well as the ill-fated Ziggy revival.

1 Cited by Bowie as one of his top 100 books. The list is as much an exhibition piece as the Ziggy Stardust costumes of Bowie’s ongoing show: it’s a scavenger hunt for fans.

2: There’s a detail in Marcello Carlin’s wonderful piece on ABC’s The Lexicon of Love: that Visconti and Bowie visited ABC during Lexicon‘s recording, and that Bowie was taken by “The Look of Love” in particular. You wonder if Bowie had stuck with Visconti for Let’s Dance (recorded in late 1982) instead of using Nile Rodgers, whether that record would’ve been more in line with what Martin Fry et al were doing at the time.

3 The biographer Dave Thompson claims, citing an anonymous “latter-day associate,” that Bowie had been irritated by Visconti spilling the beans in interviews over the years. However, this theory is weakened by the fact that a few months before Bowie contacted Visconti, Mojo ran an article in which Visconti was on record saying essentially that he and Mick Ronson had co-written The Man Who Sold the World (this was the article that inspired Bowie to snap at journalists to go back to the record and listen again: “no one writes chord changes like that“). If Bowie was so irked by such statements, this was a pretty big one.

4: Though Haynes braced for Dylan to freeze him out like Bowie had, Dylan instead let Haynes use whatever songs he wanted, including the Basement Tapes era title song, released for the first time on the film’s soundtrack.

5: Curt Wild’s band is the Rats; Slade’s first words to Mandy, “do you jive?” were allegedly Bowie’s first words to Angela; a boy recites the Hughes Mearns poem that inspired “Man Who Sold the World”; one of Slade’s press conferences has him say, almost word for word, a notorious line Bowie told Rolling Stone in 1971; and so on and so on.

6: According to David Buckley’s bio, Brian Eno was spied at the cinema, laughing his way through Velvet Goldmine.

Top: Dante Busquets, “Últimos Amarres: Laurie, Mariana y Leslie, Cuernavaca, Mor, 1998”; various shots from The Rugrats Movie (Kovalyov/Virgien, 1998) and Velvet Goldmine (Haynes, 1998).


Suite for a Foggy Day (A Foggy Day)

September 24, 2013

guy98

A Foggy Day (in London Town) (Fred Astaire, 1937).
Suite for a Foggy Day (A Foggy Day) (Bowie and Angelo Badalamenti, 1998).

The only (released) studio recording that Bowie cut in 1998 was a collaboration with Angelo Badalamenti for one of the Red Hot compilations. Badalamenti had scored David Lynch’s Lost Highway, for which Bowie’s “I’m Deranged” had been used, and Bowie was a fan. Sometime after Bowie finished shooting a trio of films, most likely in July, the two worked in a New York studio on a version of George and Ira Gershwin’s “A Foggy Day.”

This was his first recorded jazz standard since “Wild Is the Wind.“* The move suggested, on its surface, a growing conservatism, a sense that he was finally acting his age. If you were a rocker in your fifties, recording “the Great American Songbook” was something you were supposed to do, like having a prostate exam. (Starting in 2002, Rod Stewart would go to the bank with a seemingly endless sequence of “Songbook” albums). You were too old to rock and roll, so you had put on a tie and sing the music of your parents to your peers. For some rockers, purging one’s sins in purgatory begins in one’s temporal life.

Happily, Bowie and Badalamenti’s take on “Foggy Day” is so brooding and weird that it escapes the trap of reverence and taste: if you played this track as background music in Urban Outfitters, it could possibly irritate a customer. This is partly due to Badalamenti’s ambition: he had the gall to incorporate two of his own compositions, “Overcast” and “The Rainbow,” into George Gershwin’s music, opening the piece (officially titled “Suite for a Foggy Day”) with a minute-long suite with a rising four-note motif, massing his strings on one note for Bowie’s entrance.

The Gershwins had dashed out “A Foggy Day” for a Fred Astaire film, Damsel in Distress. Ira was sitting up at 1 AM reading when his brother came in from a party, sat down at the keyboard and said “how about some work? Got any ideas?” Ira offered the idea of doing a song about fog in London and in an hour they had the chorus worked out. The next day they wrote “an Irish verse” for their London song, and that was that. Astaire sang it on film and recorded it, and George died of a brain tumor a few months later: “A Foggy Day” was one of his last pieces.

“A Foggy Day” was a Gershwin musical fingerprint: the repeated notes in the melody; the rich chords for jazz players to feast on (e.g., the B-flat minor sixth on “town”); a feel of melancholy lifted by sudden jumps of fourths and fifths (take the elated leap on “for su-ddenly”), paralleling the sun breaking through the fog in the lyric; the unusual structure, with the song escaping its expected 32-bar confines with two additional bars, full of harmonic movement and melodically winking at the folk tune “English Country Gardens.”

In the Bowie/Badalamenti version, the moody “Irish” verse is lighter in feel, with an oboe line suggesting that the sun is breaking through early. When it’s time to transition to the chorus, night and fog descend: ominous low strings and winds (bass clarinet and bassoon), a drooping line on fretless bass. Bowie sings the chorus as if he’s walking into a headwind. He valiantly keeps the Gershwin vocal melody aloft while getting little support from the instruments—if anything, they seem to be retarding his progress, undermining him. Finally, there’s a feeling of movement: Bowie sees her, the fog lifts and for a moment the song breaks open. But in Bowie’s voice, the final line “through foggy London town, the sun was shining” has a weary sadness in it: it’s a moment of long-departed happiness, remembered now as a brief break in the battle. He’s still, and always will be, a stranger in the city. One of his finest covers.

Recorded ca. July 1998, National Edison and/or Excalibur Sound, New York. Released 6 October 1998 on Red Hot + Rhapsody (Antilles 314 557 788-2).

Bonus: recommended Foggy Days: Charles Mingus (beep! beep!) (1956), Oscar Peterson (1959), Billie Holiday (1957), Joe Pass (1988), Sarah Vaughan (1957), Petula Clark (1965), Frank Sinatra (1953), Judy Garland (1963).

* You could argue for “Volare,” I suppose.

Top:  Steven V-L Lee, “Penny for the Guy,” Columbia Road Market, London, November 1998,


The Battle Hymn of the Republic

September 20, 2013

western

The Battle Hymn of the Republic (Il Mio West, 1998).

Whether to clear his head or to do his part for low-budget cinema, Bowie acted in three movies, almost back to back, in the spring and summer of 1998. First he went to the Isle of Man and Liverpool for Everybody Loves Sunshine with Goldie. Then he flew to Tuscany in June (reason enough to do the film) to shoot a neo-spaghetti Western with Harvey Keitel.

This was Il Mio West, directed by Giovanni Veronesi. Bowie was to play the villain, a “psychopath” (the people of this 19th Century Western town diagnose Bowie with a just-coined term from German therapeutic circles; “you need medical help!” one yells at Bowie before the climactic gunfight)* named Jack Sikora. Bowie wore shades and delivered his lines in a squirrel’s soup of an accent: sounding alternately (or at once) like an Australian, a Hollywood cowboy and a British comedian lampooning Yanks. Followed around by a photographer for most of the picture, Sikora’s mainly in it for the headlines (“I’m gonna suck the fame outta you!” he hisses at Keitel).

It’s a testament to Bowie’s screen charisma that the first 45 minutes of the film, which mainly entail a neutered Keitel reuniting with his family of dreadful actors, feel like place-setting. When Bowie finally arrives, with his crew of albino, Rastafarian and fashion plate gunfighters, the film becomes entertaining at least (first Bowie line: “Well now this place stinks worse’n a mule’s ass…and somebody’s already shittin’ their pants!“), if it soon indulges in cheap sadism and misogyny. But it’s mainly just dismal: the final fight between Keitel and Bowie is so poorly shot, scripted and blocked that it can be read as an intentional deflation of the Western myth, if said myth hadn’t been intentionally deflated dozens of times before.

One of its only good scenes is, not surprisingly, when Bowie sings. In homage to (and ripping off) The Night of the Hunter, Bowie and his crew surround Keitel’s house at night, and Bowie rasps out a serenade. Where Robert Mitchum in Hunter had sung “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” Bowie sings “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”** and caps off his performance by breaking his guitar over the head of the village idiot.

Recorded in Garfagnana, Tuscany, during the filming of Il Mio West, June 1998. The film was released in Italy in December 1998 and, under the title Gunslinger’s Revenge, as a US DVD in 2005.

* It’s a very hip Western backwater: the telegraph operator also has a film projector in his office.

** As Nicholas Pegg noted, as Bowie’s just singing the chorus of the song, he could be singing “John Brown’s Body.” But as he seems to be wearing a variant of a Confederate uniform, it would be odd if he was singing the Union’s marching song (but perhaps he’s doing so ironically). And with this footnote, I have thought more on this subject than anyone involved in the film did.

Top: Bowie as Method gunslinger, Il Mio West (Veronesi, 1998) (from Teenage Wildlife, which has a host of fan and official photos from the film).


Tryin’ to Get to Heaven

September 18, 2013

wildbills

Tryin’ to Get to Heaven (Bob Dylan, 1997).
Tryin’ to Get to Heaven (Bowie, 1998).

Bowie, Reeves Gabrels and Mark Plati spent the first weeks of 1998 sifting through and mixing recordings from the Earthling tour, for what Bowie assumed would be his next release: a live CD provisionally (and excitingly) called Live and Well. However, Virgin balked at putting out a live album. Earthling itself hadn’t sold well and its supporting tour had mainly played clubs and small theaters, thus reducing the “audience souvenir” factor that typically drove live album purchases. So Live and Well died. Bowie went off to act in three films in quick succession, Gabrels started planning a solo album, Plati was busy producing Duncan Sheik and Hooverphonic.

During these mixing sessions, the trio also had recorded a few potential bonus tracks, one being a version of “Fun.” The curio was Bowie’s impromptu decision to cover Bob Dylan’s “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven,” a song from Dylan’s just-released Time Out of Mind. Plati, who confirmed that Bowie’s cover hailed from this session and wasn’t an outtake from Hours, saidas far as why it was chosen, hmm…..beats me! I’d hazard a guess that David liked the song, and liked singing it. It was kind of like ‘Planet of Dreams‘, it just sort of popped up from out of nowhere. Which was fine by me!…I was psyched about it because it was a completely live track, and after all the programming we’d been doing it was a nice break in the cycle.”

Time Out of Mind was Dylan’s latest critical rehabilitation, beating out OK Computer in the Pazz & Jop poll of 1997. While similar (in overall tempo and production) to his previous critical rehabilitation, Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind was the first collected evidence of Dylan’s “mature” songwriting. Having immersed himself in playing old country and blues songs, Dylan began making magpie collages. He would pilfer and quote from ghosts (he always had, to some extent). His new songs were palimpsests, sewn through with the words of other writers, with Dylan answering their voices, mocking them, shoring up their words with his own. He’d started out as a kid fervently playing these songs; now he broke them up, as if using them for kindling. He became the folk tradition (“the songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs” as he told Newsweek in ’97); he seemed to be walking backwards in time.

“Tryin’ to Get to Heaven,” which Dylan rewrote repeatedly during the album sessions, was a case in point. In its five verses, Dylan draws from Woody Guthrie (“Bound for Glory,” “Poor Boy”), Furry Lewis (“Turn Your Money Green“), various trad. folk songs (“Miss Mary Jane,” “Lonesome Valley,” “The Rising Sun Blues”) and for its chorus, he used a variant of a 19th Century hymn that Southern black churches had kept alive until the Thirties: “The Old Ark’s a-Movering” (“she trying to get to heaven ‘fo they close the do.'”). Yet the song hangs together as a single purgatory: a blasted world in which Dylan’s character wanders, from New Orleans to Baltimore, through valleys and across train platforms, subsisting on memories that are becoming a debased currency. He lies on the parlor floor, hoping for sleep, wondering if death will come in its place.

soy-bomb

Maybe Bowie saw in Dylan’s developing late style a means to craft his own: the idea that history is over, or is merely repeating in lesser variations; accepting the past, or at least breaking it up and using it for spare parts; quarrying from memory; disappearing into your old, false selves. In 1971, Bowie had written his “Song For Bob Dylan” in the voice of a cult follower whose master’s gone to ground. In 1997, as he had back in the days of Self Portrait, Dylan had escaped into a songbook. But now he wasn’t in hiding anymore: he was living a public life again, seemingly touring every minor league baseball stadium and county fair that he came across (and his cult had become gentlemen academics).

Bowie’s version of “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” (which, at least in its circulating edit, cuts Dylan’s second verse and squeezes the fourth and fifth into one incoherent lump) is, essentially, a first draft of what would become Hours. The take begins somber and ashen enough. Yet the circularity of Dylan’s singing on “Tryin'”, conveying a journey undertaken but never in danger of ending, seemed to frustrate Bowie: he needed a narrative.

So in the “people on platforms” verse, Bowie builds to a manic desperation, as if he has to make an eleventh-hour sale or he’ll be sacked by his proprietor. We get a rattled “cha-hay-hay-hain,” a squeaked-out “looose,” the creaking onomatopoeia of “cloowwoose the door,” and a gargle. Having made a hash of Dylan’s last verses, Bowie latches onto a line as if he’d drawn it by lot to torture: “I’ve beeen! to Sugar Town-I shook! the su!gar down!” Dylan sang those words with an earned swagger, like a spendthrift man recalling a spent-out life. Bowie sang them as if he was just passingly familiar with the English language.

Whenever Bowie covered someone, he typically tended to go overboard in various directions (see “God Only Knows“). I once interviewed Tim Curry, who said when playing villains he’d give his directors different wattages for different takes: under the top, over the top, top over the top. “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” seems to decide, midway through, to go top over the top. But what really murders the track is its backdrop: the cruddy reduction of Jim Keltner’s drum pattern on the Dylan track; the beyond-cliche blues licks that Gabrels plays; the somnolent keyboard “bed”; harmony vocals as a collective aural NyQuil. Bowie had been tasteless before, sure, but he’d never been so devotedly mediocre.

Recorded Looking Glass Studios?, ca. January-February 1998. Its only semi-official release was on a promo CD that also had the Danny Saber remixes of “Funhouse,” though fans learned of the Dylan cover when a Catalan radio station played the promo (and offered it as a download) in late 1999.

Top: Ted Barron, “Wild Bill’s, Memphis, Tennessee, 1998”; Dylan ambushed at the Grammys by Michael “Soy Bomb” Portnoy, 25 February 1998.