Isn’t It Evening (The Revolutionary)

February 25, 2015

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Isn’t It Evening (The Revolutionary) (Earl Slick with David Bowie).

Whenever the “who’s the greatest Bowie guitarist” debate arises (typically by dudes), there are few contenders. Mick Ronson, architect of Bowie’s breakthrough. Carlos Alomar, ultimate right-hand man. Adrian Belew, Reeves Gabrels and Robert Fripp: instigators. That’s pretty much the lot.

It’s rare for someone to argue for Earl Slick, despite his pedigree—hot Young Turk on the Diamond Dogs tour, adding guts to the Lennon tracks on Young Americans, being the linchpin of Station to Station. Called back for the Serious Moonlight tour, and the mainstay of the last Bowie tours and albums. Slick is one of the last remaining ties to Bowie’s past: of the players on The Next Day, only he and Tony Visconti had worked with Bowie in the Seventies.

So why doesn’t he get his due? Maybe he never shed the “hired gun” label (he had to fill Ronson’s shoes in 1974 and was drafted as a last-minute replacement for Stevie Ray Vaughan on the 1983 tour). Or that he’s not considered a bandleader in the way that Ronson, Alomar and Gabrels were. Some critics and fans have argued he lacks a signature sound. You can hear a few notes of Ronson and Alomar and likely place them, but what defines Earl Slick?

This gives him too little credit. Slick’s playing has a distinctive tone, a bluesy, swaggering sensibility: there’s an attitude in his string bends (only Ronson could wring more out of his bends) and pick attacks; he seems hell-bent on making his amplifiers smoke. John Lennon got Slick for the Double Fantasy sessions because “he wanted one street guy in there” among the studio aces, and Bowie regarded Slick in much the same way, as a fearless “blue-collar” guitarist who wasn’t plagued by good taste. Slick’s peak was “Station to Station,” where his regiments of overdubbed guitars created a sound that even Belew struggled to reproduce on stage.

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Slick grew up in Red Hook, Brooklyn, and Staten Island. Kicking around in a few NYC bands in the early Seventies, Slick met the composer/arranger Michael Kamen, who hired him as a roadie and then as a guitarist. Kamen, chosen as bandleader for the Diamond Dogs tour, suggested Bowie consider Slick as a lead player. “I went down to RCA Studios to meet him, they stuck a set of headphones on me, turned on some Diamond Dogs mixes and told me to play along,” Slick recalled in 2003. “They didn’t even tell me what fuckin’ key they were in.” He got the gig.

Within months, though, he was on the outs. Bowie reconfigured the tour in September 1974 to reflect his new “soul” music and Slick now had to share the stage with a rival guitarist, Alomar, and a new vocal chorus, and tackle songs that Bowie hadn’t even released yet. “I thought I was important to the thing but I’m starting to feel like a fuckin’ throwaway,” he told Bowie biographers the Gilmans in the mid-Eighties. “David had gone completely in a direction I didn’t like.” Slick realized he’d only hung onto his job “because they needed me for the rock material.”

So Station to Station became Slick and Alomar battling for control, each overdubbing the other, each trying to outplay the other. Alomar, who’d assembled a rhythm section he was in sync with, had pole position; Slick, who’d made the strategic blunder of signing with Bowie’s soon-to-be-estranged new manager, was outside, trying to knife his way in. The title track, “TVC 15,” “Golden Years” and “Stay” are the records of their battles—Alomar sparring with one of his endless catchy riffs, Slick retaliating with massive chords and feedback concertos.

Slick was gone before the 1976 tour. In the Eighties he was a session man and leader of his own sub-super group, Phantom, Rocker & Slick. In the Nineties, he cleaned up and burned out. “Every time I got called to do anything, or when anybody was going to get involved with me, it was for that—more of the same,” he told Billboard in 2003. “And I remember going onstage doing another, yet one more blues rock solo, and just thinking, ‘Man, this is not fun.’ And at the time, I don’t think I was conscious of whether I was bored with what I was doing, with that kind of guitar playing, or if I just started hating music. I didn’t know where I was at.”

So he quit. Moved to Lake Tahoe with his Newfoundlands, stayed off the grid for years. When he put up his own website, around 1999, he got back on Bowie’s radar. The story was that Bowie, who was spending hours on the Internet at the time, did the usual thing: he wondered “hey, whatever became of Slick?” and typed his name into AltaVista. And so Bowie (or a staffer) discovered Slick was living in the High Sierras. Around New Year 2000, an email invitation was sent to Slick’s webmaster, and Slick went to New York to, yet again, step in for a departing lead guitarist: in this case, Reeves Gabrels. Slick played on Bowie’s 2000 mini-tour, and has been on every Bowie album and tour since.

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It helped that Bowie was reviving many of his Seventies rockers on stage and that the new songs from Heathen and Reality suited Slick’s style—Bowie wasn’t asking him to do many drum ‘n’ bass numbers. Slick also had cooled down. “I don’t like using my chops anymore. It bores me,” he told Vintage Guitar.I approached David Bowie’s stuff a lot differently way back than I do now. I’m playing less, but I think my playing is a lot more intense and I’m playing more to the sound of things. I’m playing simpler and a little more thematic, and a lot less jammy and bluesy than I used to. Because I write so much now, I’m approaching the songs more like a songwriter.”

Invigorated by working on Bowie’s albums and tours, Slick in 2001 began planning his first solo album in over a decade. Originally he was going to make an instrumental record, using fellow Bowie sideman Mark Plati as producer, but he didn’t have the stomach to cut a “noodling” album, as lead guitarists usually produce. (“I’ve never been that much of a heavy noodler anyway,” he said.) Instead, Zig Zag started as Slick’s attempts at writing incidental music for films, keeping his tracks concise and melodic. “The album was almost like making a demo to get scoring jobs.”

But Slick had racked up admirers over the years, so he soon had Robert Smith singing on one track, and Joe Elliott, Royston Langdon (Spacehog) and Martha Davis (the Motels) were also on board. Bowie not-quite-subtly invited himself. “He overheard a conversation I was having with [Plati]… and said, ‘I guess you’re not interested in me maybe doing a little something on the record,‘” Slick recalled.

Each guest singer had provided their top melodies and lyrics, and Bowie did the same. His contribution, “Isn’t It Evening (The Revolutionary),” which Slick described as “pensive,” came after Slick sent Bowie “seven really rough pieces” and he picked one. Once the track was properly recorded, Bowie came to Looking Glass Studios (during the recording of Reality in early 2003) to cut his typically quick-take vocal. “He asked what I thought about the ending and I said, “Well, what if you tried this on the harmony…,” Slick recalled. “It was fucking weird giving him direction! I was stepping back from myself the whole time, like there was one of me at the console and one of me just watching everything in the room.”

The result was a track that, unlike some other Bowie side-project contributions, was worthy of his own albums. Bowie’s lyrics and melodies are in line with the somber theatricals of Heathen and Reality, with some striking lines (“one dies on the lawn/his face turned away from it all“). The track’s final-curtain mood makes “Isn’t It Evening” another end point for a professional life that, unknown to all concerned, was about to go on hiatus for a decade.

So here’s to the perennially-underrated Earl Slick: say what you’d like, but he outlasted ’em all.

Recorded: (Bowie vocal) Looking Glass Studios, ca. February 2003; (guitars, backing tracks) ca. late 2002, early 2003, Looking Glass. Released 9 December 2003 on Zig Zag (Sanctuary 06076-84671).

Top: Camilio Vergara, “‘Satan, you are not longer my Lord,’ Outdoor service of the New Creation Ministry, Sutter Ave., Brooklyn, 2003.”

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Try Some, Buy Some

February 2, 2015

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Try Some, Buy Some (Ronnie Spector, 1971).
Try Some, Buy Some (George Harrison, 1973).
Try Some, Buy Some (Bowie).
Try Some, Buy Some (Bowie, live, 2003).
Try Some, Buy Some (Bowie, live, 2003).

Promoting Reality in 2003, Bowie took pains to say that one of his cover recordings, “Try Some, Buy Some,” was only an inadvertent homage to its composer, the recently-deceased George Harrison. “For me it was a Ronnie Spector song,” he said. “It never really occurred to me that I was actually covering a George Harrison song…it’s rather fitting and quite lovely that it is an unwitting tribute to George.”

Harrison died in November 2001, the capstone to a dreadful year. Having fought off throat cancer in 1997, he was subsequently beaten and stabbed by a psychotic housebreaker. Friends like Keith Richards blamed the attack (which was close to fatal: Harrison had five stab wounds, one of which punctured his lung) for leaving Harrison weakened against a renewed bout of lung and brain cancer, which swiftly killed him. So, essentially, half of the members of the 20th Century’s biggest pop group were murdered at their homes by obsessed fans.

Harrison was the Beatles’ house moralist (to use a Philip Roth line, he was their “unchaste monk”). His was the voice interrupting the party to say: you’re really only very small and life goes on within you and without you. A lifetime is so short: a new one can’t be bought. Try thinking more, if just for your own sake. The farther one travels, the less one knows. And the last-ever recorded Beatles track, a waltz on egoism: Even those tears/I me MINE I me MINE I me MINE.

A bus driver’s son from working-class Liverpool, Harrison was a pop emperor by 21. In the late Sixties, he tried to ground his wealth and fame in some working philosophical system, a sort of Hare Krishna stoicism. By middle age he was more interested in his gardening than making records (it showed), and of all the Beatles, he treated the band’s legend with the least reverence: The Rutles is in part snarky secret autobiography. The three Beatles songwriter voices were autobiographer (Lennon), novelist (McCartney) and, with Harrison, sermonizer. Had they been a medieval troupe, Harrison would have been the friar who lectured on Hell in breaks between the acrobats and hurdy-gurdy acts. And then pulled a toad out of his sleeve.

For [Harrison], there is a belief in some kind of system,” Bowie told Paul du Noyer in 2003 (Harrison had chanted ‘Hare Krishna’ at his attacker that night, though mainly to distract him). “But I really find that hard. Not on a day to day basis,because there are habits of life that have convinced me there is something solid to believe in. But when I become philosophical, in those ‘long, lonely hours’ it’s the source of all my frustrations, hammering away at the same questions I’ve had since I was 19. Nothing has really changed for me.”

Beatles fans could find Harrison’s spiritualism trying, too—my father tended to skip the needle over “Within You Without You” when he played Sgt. Pepper‘s second side. And yes, there’s something grating about a millionaire (one of whose best songs griped about the marginal tax rate of Harold Wilson’s Britain) banging on about the illusory nature of material life while living in a mansion, or decrying the false wisdom of drugs after having spent years of his life tripping.

But as the Beatles finally become installed in the past (I imagine we’ve one more commemorative decade ahead of us), Harrison seems their most fundamentally sound member, the band’s reality principle, and, at his best, their most profound writer (see “Long Long Long,” a torch song for God). From his earliest to last songs, he kept at the same home truths. Life is brief, we spend the great part of it worrying over pointless things, we lie to ourselves and each other too much, everything we love will die, and we ultimately know nothing about existence. So why not try to make peace with your god, or at least spend your days gardening?

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Harrison wrote “Try Some, Buy Some” during the All Things Must Pass sessions of 1970. It was one of his songs about maya, the Hindu/Krishna concept that much of the perceived world is illusory and that reality is only found at the spiritual level. Maya is ever-changing, and as such the cause of human unhappiness and sorrow. Or, to ground “Try Some” in provincial terms, material life is a funfair. You go for a visit, overeat, go on the rides, buy some trinkets. But one day you have to go home. So in “Try Some,” the verses look back to the Sixties—the drugs, the sex, meeting “big fry”–while the refrains turn to the future, a humbled reconciliation with God. The last refrain finds Harrison back at the funfair, but in an evangelist’s booth: “try some” spirituality on for size.

The song was a platonic ideal of Harrison’s compositions, his labored style marked by clockwork chord progressions in which he used “chord changes as expressive, rather than functional, devices” (Ian MacDonald). His songs seemed like orreries, moving in slow, weighty orbits. “The extreme example of Harrison’s circular melodic style, [“Try Some” seems] to snake through an unending series of harmonic steps,” as Simon Leng wrote. Composed on piano and organ (rare for Harrison, who had Klaus Voormann play the bass keys), which Harrison said inspired all the “weird chords,” its vertebrae was a descending chromatic bassline, hitting every semitone from E to B, and an another descending harmonic sequence in which Harrison starts on A minor and corkscrews down to D major (Am-Ab-G-F#-E-A-D).

As if aiming to make the song more ungainly, Harrison gave it a seesawing top melody and set it an unforgiving 3/4 time and in a key that Ronnie Spector, for whom it was intended, found uncomfortable to sing in.* “I know you can hit those notes,” her husband and producer Phil Spector told her, while vetoing her suggestion of using vibrato (“Vibrato is Sixties. This is 1971.“).

Ronnie, who flew into London to record what was supposed to be the lead-off single for her debut solo LP, said she first thought Harrison’s song was a joke, like the B-side jam “Tandoori Chicken” (the studio’s takeaway order). She didn’t understand a word of the lyric (nor did he, its composer reportedly said) and found it hard to sing, but she was a trooper, mastering the song’s jarring rhythms and hitting all of the high notes (throwing in her trademark “Be My Baby” hook at 1:23).

“Try Some” was a colossal flop, only hitting #77 in the US and not even charting in Britain (some DJs favored “Tandoori Chicken”). Its disastrous performance killed Ronnie’s solo album, with her husband, who believed he’d recorded a spiritual masterpiece unappreciated by Philistines, falling deeper into alcoholism and paranoia. Some of Ronnie’s supporters found the choice of debut single ridiculous, a clunky Harrison downer that would’ve sunk anyone forced to sing it, and blamed Phil for sabotaging her comeback. (Ronnie, who’d been kept a virtual prisoner by Phil in the late Sixties, escaped his mansion on foot soon after “Try Some” was issued).

One of the few who bought “Try Some” at the time was a Beckenham songwriter with a taste for obscurities. “I got [the single] because I was totally ga-ga over Ronnie Spector,” Bowie recalled in 2003. “I always thought she was absolutely fantastic.”**

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Bowie had wanted to cover “Try Some, Buy Some” for years, and he’d been taken with Ronnie Spector’s sound as far back as “Teenage Wildlife.” “We were pretty true to the original arrangement but the overall atmosphere is somewhat different. It’s a dense piece,” he said of his version.

He meant to free the song from Spector’s over-arrangement and let it have its say in a more subtle, forgiving setting. Unfortunately this wound up being a cheap-sounding Korg Trinity backing track that possibly survived from the demo stages. There are some nice touches—Bowie’s baritone saxophone leading the march to the basement, and a new two-note guitar hook, which seems an attempt to distract the ear from all the harmonic grinding going on underneath—but the piece comes off both chintzy and too much in the shadow of the original recording. It attempts grandeur on the cheap. Bowie doesn’t try to out-sing Spector (he couldn’t, at this point) and he takes the song in a comfortable range, where Harrison had strained at the top of his range, giving his version a desperate quality—Harrison doesn’t quite believe in what he’s selling. There’s little yearning in Bowie’s version, but far more sadness. It’s a man recounting a lost battle.

So we’ve reached the last studio-recorded Bowie cover of this survey. This blog has been unforgiving to many of his covers—“Friday On My Mind,” “Across the Universe,” “Kingdom Come,” “God Only Knows,” “If There Is Something,” to pick a few. And it’s fair to say that few Bowie fans approach a new album with the hope of “maybe there’ll be a lot of covers on this one!”

What drove him to do so many? Bowie’s always been a pop fan, and his covers were often fan tributes (fan fictions, even)—a key to understanding Pin Ups is that Bowie’s pantomiming all of these butch Sixties singers as well as playing the gawky fans dancing along to the records at home, typically in the same performance. There’s a common thread of tastelessness in Bowie covers, and it’s in part owed to this—Bowie gets so wrapped up in how much he loves these songs that he doesn’t care what he sounds like, and he’s too much in love to change the songs to suit his strengths.

Some of it was lab work—Bowie picking apart other songwriters to see how they’d done it, and absconding with their best bits (so he did a Kinks cover on Pin Ups and then used various Ray Davies tricks on The Idiot and Low). His decades’ worth of covering “Waiting for the Man” and “White Light/White Heat” suggested he was trying to hypnotize himself into writing like Lou Reed. “Nite Flights” is an offering to a household saint.

By the early 2000s, Bowie was ticking off things he’d meant to tribute years before, which gives the last round of Heathen and Reality covers poignancy and looseness. “Pablo Picasso” and “Cactus” are hoots, with Bowie grandly refusing to act his age; “Gemini Spaceship” and “I’ve Been Waiting for You” tip the hat to long-standing, multi-generational influences.

And “Try Some, Buy Some”? Bowie’s favorite Beatle, or at least the Beatle who’d most governed him, had been his friend John Lennon (Bowie never had much time for McCartney, except stealing a few tricks for songs like “Oh! You Pretty Things” and “Right On Mother”). But in Harrison, a songwriter who, like Bowie, had a long public apprenticeship (see “You Like Me Too Much”), Bowie also found affinities. Reaching his mid-fifties, Bowie found Harrison’s spirituality alluring, even if he could never bring himself to become a believer (or even a gardener).

So “Try Some, Buy Some,” an oddball’s tribute to a forgotten single, sits there near the end of Reality, taking up space on an already-overlong album, and slightly spoiling the mood. Harrison would have approved: the song was never meant to go down easy.

Recorded: (rhythm tracks, vocals) January-February 2003, (lead guitars, lead and backing vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York.

* Harrison also wrote for Spector “You,” which was catchy and well-suited to her voice. She recorded a version in 1971 but it was never released (Harrison used the backing track for his version). Looking back in 1999, Ronnie said “Try Some” had become one of her favorite singles. It “was done to make me happy, and it did. It might not have been made for the right reasons, but it’s a good record.”

** Not merely as a singer. “She’s a terrific looking woman,” Bowie said.

Top: Ara Oshagan, from “Traces of Identity: An Insider’s View of the LA Armenian Community, 2000-2004.”

Hype notice: There’s now a “Book” section of the blog (see top, next to “About”). This page will serve as a place for pre-order links, readings, notices about any possible interviews, that sort of thing.


Days

January 26, 2015

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Days.
Days (live, 2003).
Days (live, 2004).

Tucked midway through Reality, “Days” is a sunny self-evisceration. Bowie’s obvious reference was the Kinks’ “Days,” the most generous-seeming breakup song ever written. Ray Davies is heartbroken and may never get over it, but he’s grateful for the brief span of happiness he was allotted. Yet the memory of his happiness is all he has left, and his boundless gratitude has an obsessional quality.

Not so much here. Bowie’s playing a cad, someone who’s taken his lover for granted and only now (he’s facing death perhaps (“there’s little left of me“), or maybe his partner’s finally wised up) feels any twinges of guilt. It’s an egoist’s regret. “All I’ve done, I’ve done for me/ All you gave, you gave for free,” his sings in the essential verse. “I gave nothing in return.” The refrain’s a statement of fact—he’s racked up such an emotional debt that he can never repay it—and by the bridge he’s worked up the nerve to ask for more.

Feinting at G minor in verses only to steady itself in F major in the refrains, “Days” begins with a modest arrangement—three acoustic guitar tracks, a lead guitar peeking in every other bar until settling down to arpeggiate, and a conga/kick drum rhythm. The second verse carts in drums and a piano line, soon taken up by synthesizer, that’s twisted by Bowie’s baritone saxophone. The bridge (which the whole song seems to be leading up to) has a descending bassline,* an uneasy bed of synthetic strings and a small gallery of Bowie voices. It’s over in a wink, with Bowie sweetly atoning for his past and future crimes.

Recorded: (lead guitars, lead and backing vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Released 16 September 2003 on Reality.

* Guided downward by the bari sax: “(Bb)my crazy brain (Bb/A)entangles (Gm) pleading for your (Bb/F)gentle voice.”

Top: James Burns, “La Noue Montreuil, Paris suburb,” 2003.


The Loneliest Guy

January 20, 2015

The Loneliest Guy.
The Loneliest Guy (live, 2003).
The Loneliest Guy (Parkinson, 2003).
The Loneliest Guy (live, 2004).

A very despairing piece of work,” Bowie said of “The Loneliest Guy” in 2003. Its subject is “a guy qualifying his entirely hermetic, isolated existence by saying ‘actually I’m a lucky guy. I’m not really alone—I just have myself to look after.'”

This type, a man cooped in his room and subsisting on art and memory, is a constant in Bowie’s writing. Go back through the songs and his sad face keeps turning up. The failed artist/academic who lives above an Austrian grocer; the man who carries a razor in case of depression; the coked-up magus trapped in his circle, overlooking the ocean; the assorted shut-ins of Low, like the girl with grey eyes and the man in the electric blue room; old Algeria Touchshriek. If one end of the Bowie spectrum is the charismatic on stage, the “Loneliest Guy” is the other: Bowie’s deep ultraviolet range. An isolate, a man unable to communicate, to get out of his head; one who expires for lack of an audience.

This wan, lonely character was as “real” as any Ziggy Stardust archetype, and as much of an autobiographical figure that Bowie ever offered. Talking to Anthony DeCurtis in 2003, he said that finally, in high middle age and having become a parent again, “[I] don’t have that sense of loneliness that I had before, which was very, very strong. It became a subtext for a lot of the things I wrote.”

So “The Loneliest Guy” sloughs off an old self, or does it? The man who said everything was in its place, who was utterly content, was perhaps projecting a bit. The “loneliest guy” here flicks through old pictures on his hard drive, poisoned by brighter memories (“the notion that our ideas are inhabited by ghosts and that there’s nothing in our philosophy—that all the big ideas are empty containers” (see “Reality”)). Had he really been boxed up at last? If so, what would it mean for Bowie’s songwriting, when the self closest to his muse was no longer in service?

anarchitekton

In the same interview (with Interview), Bowie began to ramble through his thoughts, offering a taste of the sort of thing he tells his musicians, like “think Impressionism” to a saxophone player. He said his loneliest guy lives in a decayed, empty place, “a city taken over by weeds.” In particular, he lives in Brasilia, the modernist artificial city, built from scratch in the Sixties to be the center of Brazilian government and commerce. The city of a future that never quite came, its neighborhoods built in grids, its squares full of modernist stadiums and concert halls. It was Godard’s Alphaville in the Brazilian highlands. For art critics like Robert Hughes, Brasilia was “miles of jerry-built platonic nowhere infested with Volkswagens. This, one may fervently hope, is the last experiment of its kind. The utopian buck stops here.”

Brasilia was “the perfect standard for an empty, godless universe,” Bowie said. “The architect Oscar Niemeyer designed all these places thinking that they were going to be filled with millions of people and now there are about 200,000 people living there, so the weeds and the grass are growing back up through the stones of this brilliantly modernistic city. It’s a set of ideas…being taken back over again by the jungle.”

This wasn’t really true about Brasilia.* It suggested more Bowie’s old rotting Hunger City, the modernist grid turned dystopian playground, or the capitalist wasteland of “Thru’ These Architect’s Eyes.” This aside, the metaphor of a rotting Brasilia, a great modernist plan being eaten by nature, works as a description of the track itself. “The Loneliest Guy” is a song collapsing from within, moving as if sleep-stung, occasionally rousing to life, then guttering out again. Take how its remote E-flat minor key is woken by bright intrusions from E major (“steam (E) under floor (Ebm)”). The song yearns to pull free in its third verse (“all the pages that have turned...”) until a Eb minor chord snuffs out the coup (on a precisely-timed “oh”).

It’s such a lugubrious song, and Bowie’s character is such a colossal sad sack, that its miseries border on the darkly comical. It calls to mind Steve Martin’s The Lonely Guy, set in a New York where lonelyhearts congregate on city roofs to holler their exes’ names, who eat dinner alone with a spotlight trained on them and who politely queue on the Manhattan Bridge to jump into the East River.

Flavored by waves of David Torn’s atmospherics (it’s possible Bowie thought of the Pretty Things’ “Loneliest Person,” built on arpeggiated acoustic guitar), the song was built on Mike Garson’s piano. During the Reality sessions in New York, Garson played Yamaha digital piano (owned by Bowie, and loaned to Garson during the 2003-04 tour), then went home to California with the MIDI files to re-cut his parts on “my 9-foot Yamaha Disklavier, recording as [the MIDI] played back,” Garson recalled to Mix. So at mixing, Bowie and Visconti could choose between “synthetic” or “real” Yamaha on each track and picked analog for this one.

It was one of the most gorgeously-recorded of the Reality tracks, with the guitars serving as a string section, Garson’s chords resounding into deep space and Bowie hanging upon every note he sings, as if he can’t bear to let them go.

Recorded: (lead guitars, lead and backing vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York; (piano) ca. March-April 2003, Garson’s home studio, Bell Canyon, CA. Released 16 September 2003 on Reality.

* As per the 2010 IBGE census, over 2.4 million people live in Brasilia, making it the fourth-largest city in the country.

Top: Konstantin Maximov, “Copenhagen,” 2003; Jordi Colomer, Anarchitekton: Brasilia (2003).


Fly

January 12, 2015

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Fly.

Written seemingly as a counterpart to “She’ll Drive the Big Car,” “Fly” (a desperate husband’s tale, with another A major refrain) was knocked down to a bonus track. By this point in Bowie’s career, one expects this sort of thing. Given a choice, he’ll always cut a self-penned track from an album before a questionable cover (see “It Ain’t Easy,” “Across the Universe,” “Bang Bang,” etc.).

That said, “Fly” would have been a tough fit on Reality, even more than “Queen of All the Tarts.” Despite its depressive lyrical scenario, it’s a cheery track, a clatter-fest in a hurry to get somewhere. In keeping with Bowie’s apparent desire to sneakily remake Never Let Me Down, “Fly” is one of the most “Eighties” Bowie tracks since, well, the Eighties. The main guitar riff (Carlos Alomar, see below) seems a bit derived from Devo’s “Whip It,”* while a holiday camp keyboard is just one voice in a mix overrun by stray instruments. There are even some little party bits, like the “dying for the WEEKEND” tag.

A father’s in his driveway weeping in his car, watching the TV play to an empty room in his house. His wife is bored or distracted, his son might be on drugs. The kids down the street are playing “on their decks”** in the garage, working up a set for an “all-night rave” (seems like Bowie hasn’t been getting out too much in the early 2000s). None of this seems that tragic, even the verse about some kid overdosing. It’s more like Stewart Copeland’s “On Any Other Day“—a suburban dystopia played for laughs.

It’s fun to see Bowie back in suburbia again, for what would be one of his last visits. As a kid in Bromley, like the father in “Fly,” he took refuge in his mind. He stayed up in his room and read Beat novels, looked for UFOs, played records, scrawled in notebooks, practiced astral projections. He once described his teenage home as having to pass through purgatory (his parents’ living room) to get upstairs into his private haven. Dana Gillespie recalled how cold the Jones’ house was—she found it a loveless place, a house without life, as if Bowie’s parents were actors who went off stage when no one was around.

So Bowie stayed in his room until he could fly. Away he went: Haddon Hall, Chelsea, Los Angeles. Berlin, Montreux, New York. As Momus wrote, much of these “last” Bowie albums are Bowie regarding his aging contemporaries as one would creatures in a zoo. What’s it like to have failed, to have fed on dreams but starved instead? Even his own success had nearly snuffed out a few times. He’d rolled the right number, but what if he hadn’t?

Hence the refrain of “Fly,” Bowie taking grandiose refuge in his dreams (in the last refrain, an unexpected D# minor chord (“but I can fly”) rattles the sequence, making Bowie alter his flight path to stay in the air). Dreams are in a provisional tense, offering that the present isn’t real, that the future isn’t set. But dreams are lies, of course. Those that come true are simply lies we’ve willed ourselves (and other people) into believing.

alomar

In spring 1974, a young British singer/songwriter met a guitarist at a session in New York the singer was producing for Lulu. Bowie found in Carlos Alomar his ambassador to the New York R&B and funk scenes; Alomar saw Bowie as a way off the R&B circuit.

The timing was perfect. Having split with Mick Ronson, Bowie needed a new sous-chef. But he didn’t want another Ronson (if he had, he’d just have kept Ronson). He wanted someone who kept behind the scenes (no worries that Alomar would get more fan mail than Bowie) and who could handle new twists in Bowie’s songwriting. To Ronson, Bowie typically presented lyrics, top melodies and even guitar or basslines—at the least, Bowie would offer a complete chord sequence. Ronson’s role was to smooth, kick up, embellish and refine, to find counterpoints and add effects, to broaden and sweeten the song, to give it a public face.

By Station to Station and Low, Alomar was charged with creating the basics of a song. Bowie would offer some chords, a provisional title, some mood directions, and let Alomar take it from there. Bowie would monitor him rigorously and approve or discard whatever Alomar came up with, and much of the work was now in “post-production” (Alomar rarely heard Bowie’s vocals until the record came out). But essentially this was songwriting as delegation: Bowie as foreman/engineer, Alomar as shop steward. Scott Walker once described Bowie’s work as being something like a factory: He comes up with the goods and makes sure of delivery all down the line. Bowie couldn’t have done this without Alomar, who was his translator, research team, legwork man and studio engine.

Nearly becoming a victim of Bowie’s changing tastes in the early Eighties, Alomar persevered, playing on Tonight and Never Let Me Down, touring Glass Spider. He hung on until Outside and the subsequent tour, which finally made him know he was done. Even after that, he added a few guitar lines to Heathen and Reality tracks. Towards the end, Bowie spoke of Alomar a bit coldly (“Carlos is always good value for money,” he said on a webchat in 2001), and the two haven’t reconnected yet in Bowie’s current revival.

Alomar’s lead riff on “Fly” is barbed with hooks, as always, but it’s a rather hollow last act, like Ronson’s farewell solo on “I Feel Free” in 1993. No matter. What’s important is that Alomar got a last act, and that he’s slowly won the recognition he deserves. Let’s hope “Fly” isn’t the end of Bowie and Alomar’s days together. But if it is, hail and farewell, Carlos Alomar: Bowie’s finest collaborator.

Recorded: (rhythm tracks, vocals) January-February 2003, (lead guitars, lead and backing vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Released 16 September 2003 on the 2-CD version of Reality.

* Nicholas Pegg suggested the riff owes a bit to Abba’s “On and On and On” too.

** See LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge,” which Bowie almost certainly heard before making this. “I’m losing my edge…to the kids whose footsteps I hear when they get on the decks.”

Top: James Welling, “Apartments, West Los Angeles,” 2003; Carlos Alomar teaching kids music at the Summer Science and Rainbow Camp, Anatolia College, 2011.


She’ll Drive the Big Car

January 5, 2015

big car

She’ll Drive the Big Car.
She’ll Drive the Big Car (Trafic.Musique, 2003).
She’ll Drive the Big Car (live, 2003).
She’ll Drive the Big Car (live, 2004).

Reality is Bowie’s open revision of past missteps, having another go at sounds he’d heard in his head in 1987 or 1991 that he hadn’t quite captured on record. So some of the album’s “public” songs, the various 9/11 pieces, come off as Never Let Me Down or Tin Machine tracks as revised by a more mature, or at least more tasteful, artist.

There were also a few “character” songs in which Bowie revived a lyrical conceit of “…hours.” The latter was intended (or so he said at the time) as a midlife malaise album, with songs whose perspectives were those of “friends” who’d lost their way, disappointed men facing 50 with little to show for it.

Reality offered a pairing of desperate husband (demoted to a bonus track, see next entry) and enraged wife. “She’ll Drive the Big Car” concerns a former free spirit, now barnacled with husband and kids, who speeds along Riverside Drive in Manhattan, wondering if she should just cut the wheel and plunge into the Hudson River.

All her plans have been disassembled by her thoughtless boyfriend,” Bowie told Interview. The cad was supposed to “take her back to the old bohemian life,” back to the street life. But instead he stands her up, like the “friend” of the girl in “Life on Mars?” At least that girl still had the movies. Here, the woman’s left stranded at home (introducing the song live, he said of its protagonist: “she lives in the wrong part of town but she wants to live in an even badder, wronger part of town”) “She’s stuck with this middle class family and is absolutely, desperately unhappy as she’s peeling along Riverside Drive,” he said. “In my mind she just swings it off to the left,* and takes the whole lot down.”

Her trap’s reflected in the verse’s chord structure. (As opposed to his usual way of rigging a song together in the studio, “She Drives the Big Car” was “specifically a written piece,” Bowie said.) The home chord, F major, is limbo. The verse starts on the dominant chord, C major (a hope of escape: “back in millennium/meant racing to the light”), slides down to the subdominant chord, Bb major (things don’t work out: she “melt[s] home”) and ends with her circling yet again on Riverside (F).** The refrains escape to A major until, in the last bars, the F chord returns her to stasis again. It’s “Always Crashing in the Same Car“: life as a perpetual JG Ballard car crash, every day in the same car.

As with most Bowie third-person studies, there are some autobiographical asides (a cardinal Bowie rule is that no one is as interesting as him, particularly fictional people). Take the shaky falsetto in which he sings “sad, sad soul”: an uncanny throwback to the cocaine-frayed vocals on Young Americans. And the refrain of the song-within-the-song, the track blasting on the radio station as the woman drives like a demon on Riverside, is the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” (just a little bit LOUDER NOW! …a little bit softer now…), lines that Bowie had sung as a kid in his cover of “Louie Louie Go Home.” (Bowie also plays his “amateur” harmonica for the first time since the Eighties). If the depressed wife is blasting the song to distract herself (“she’s turning the radio up high so she doesn’t have to think anymore,” Bowie said), it’s also Bowie bewitching himself with an old lost voice.

In the early 2000s, Bowie kept telling interviewers how happy he was in his current life. That said, this was a man who’d given up drugs, booze, cigarettes and (apparently) extramarital relationships, and whose life now revolved around child-raising (he joked that his most-heard song of ’03 was “The Wheels on the Bus”). So it’s not difficult to imagine some little part of him wishing he could chuck it all away and move back to Berlin, take up with an art collective of mad, attractive young people and drink champagne for breakfast. Unlike most of us, Bowie still could do this. If his is a life of quiet desperation, it’s of his own design.

R-670674-1237574286

With some of the more striking images of his later years (“love lies like a dead clown***/on a shabby yellow lawn,” or the way Bowie plays with the name “Riverside Drive,” turning it into a sylvan place with “cormorants and leaves“), the lyric keeps itself open, disclosing little. Who’s the “Jessica” that the woman keeps thinking about? Her daughter, who she might kill in a car crash, or herself, staring back at her in the rear-view mirror? Who’s sitting behind—her husband or her lover? Is the big car a hearse?

The track was built like a dollhouse, rooms within rooms, each piece set in place: brisk acoustic guitar work, esp. in the verses, and a snaky, twanging figure mixed left in refrains (and little feedback burst at 3:22, like a rip in the song); the synthesizer bed that sounds like a harmonium, and the yearning counter-melody in the second verse; the marimba fills; the snare drum hiccup Sterling Campbell plays to signal the refrains, and how his cymbals are mixed to sound as if he’s shaking chains (also, the perfectly-timed handclaps in the refrains). There’s even Bowie’s baritone saxophone, barely noticeable in the verses, just a dark layer in the foundation.

Most impressive were the harmonies, one of the finest vocal arrangements on a Bowie track since Young Americans. It was a tapestry of Bowie, Gail Ann Dorsey and Catherine Russell, with Bowie as frantic advocate and Dorsey and Russell, with their long-held notes and their vaults up an octave, as ecstatic assurance.

Tracks like “She’ll Drive the Big Car” made it seem such a shame that Bowie “retired” after Reality, as he sounded as if he still had a smoldering heap of unfinished business. In 2013, he proved he did.

Recorded: (rhythm tracks, vocals) January-February 2003, (lead guitars, lead and backing vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Released 16 September 2003 on Reality.

* She’s driving up Riverside from downtown and, if she goes for it, she’ll aim for the river by cutting across oncoming traffic. The first verse notes she’s “northbound on Riverside,” but the second refrain mentions the Lower East Side intersection of Ludlow and Grand St. and going “south along the Hudson.”

** Both C and Bb chords shift to major sevenths (“sick with fear,” “melted home”) before giving way to the succeeding chord.

*** Yeah, yeah, I know the printed lyric says “cloud” but “dead clown” is such a superior image that I refuse to believe he didn’t sing it.

Top: Thomas Struth, “The Richter Family,” Koln, 2002.


Queen Of All the Tarts (Overture)

December 19, 2014

queen is dead of all the tarts

Queen Of All the Tarts (Overture).

As its recording was used as pre-show music for much of the Reality Tour, was “Queen Of All the Tarts (Overture)” once intended as an album intro? If so, its demotion to bonus track was likely owed to sequencing—the Queen doesn’t sit comfortably amidst the more common tracks.

A track whose centerpiece is a two-tiered (possibly two-fingered) synth solo courtesy of the artiste himself, “Queen of All the Tarts” features the usual Reality impasto of guitar overdubs (Earl Slick, David Torn and Gerry Leonard all seem to make an appearance: is Torn playing the militant, jabbing line towards the outro?). The bassist (Mark Plati or Tony Visconti) sounds like he’s downed a few espressos; Sterling Campbell tracks in some thudding tom fills (there are also low-mixed sleigh bells).

Its lyric’s a repeated one-line refrain, essentially a vocalized keyboard line, with odd two-note harmonies (a multi-tracked Bowie souped in with Gail Ann Dorsey and Catherine Russell). It comes off like Bowie’s version of Queen’s “Flash’s Theme.” And don’t forget the parenthetical: if it’s an Overture, for which glam opera? It’s as if Bowie’s written an intro piece for a younger self, casting the song back in time. So Queen Bitch walks again, having grown more regal, if wearier, in her waning years.

Recorded: (rhythm tracks, vocals) January-February 2003, (lead guitars, lead and backing vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Released 16 September 2003 on the 2-CD version of Reality.

Top: Jonathan Monk, Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before, 2003 (MoMA).

Book hype footnote: pre-orders available now, see top right box. Non US/UK people: check out Book Depository, which allegedly ships free worldwide.


Looking For Water

December 16, 2014

looking for water

Looking For Water.
Looking For Water (A Reality Tour, 2003).
Looking For Water (live, 2004).

Asked about “Looking For Water” in 2003, Bowie said he’d started with the cartoon-strip image of a man lost in the desert, crawling around under the boiling sun hoping to see palm trees, signifying an oasis. Instead he spies in the distance a row of oil derricks—an American perversion of deliverance, machines pumping oil from the earth, not trees sustained by water underground.

The last of the set of post-9/11 songs he’d written for Reality, “Looking For Water” moves the setting from a numbed, burned Manhattan to an anonymous Middle East country, which would answer for the crime (regardless of its guilt) for the rest of the decade. The conceit is some Manhattanite wandering in the desert, a few traces of his old life still in his head (a piece of “The Star Spangled Banner,” “Autumn Leaves”): an innocent abroad, wandering through a hell of his own making, wandering in circles.

A “virtually looped, chordwise” (Bowie) song that shuttles between D major and F# minor* throughout and whose structure is a piled-up set of agitated verses and guitar breaks, it became a tapestry of guitar tracks, primarily by David Torn and Earl Slick. Starting with a single left-mixed guitar keeping to its top three strings, the set soon expands to include a blunt Slick retort, a descending main riff doubled on bass (Mark Plati, tracing a Tony Visconti bassline from the demo) and some ferocious counterpoint figures, as if Torn is trying to rip his way out of the song (starting around 1:40). Sterling Campbell is a piston engine, giving a punishing crack to his snare on every beat. And the fever breaks: the track ends with a double-tracked Bowie, still lost in the desert.

It was a fresh sound—bright, punchy, unsentimental—and it proved long-lasting, serving as a template a decade later for some The Next Day tracks like “The Stars (Are Out Tonight).”

Recorded: (backing tracks) January-February 2003,(lead guitars, vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios. Released 16 September 2003 on Reality.

* You could make the case for either being the key, either D major orbiting to its mediant (iii) chord, F#m, or an F#m tonic chord set against its submediant (VI), D major. In either case it’s a “strong” force pitted against a “weak” one, as opposed to a favorite Bowie habit of having two major chords duke it out (“Rebel Rebel,” “Golden Years”).

Top: Ashey Gilbertson, “A U.S. soldier walks in a Baghdad, Iraq airbase with a stuffed tiger on his back,” October 16, 2003.


New Killer Star

December 9, 2014

new killer star

New Killer Star.
New Killer Star (single edit, video).
New Killer Star (Jonathan Ross, 2003).
New Killer Star (Today Show, 2003).
New Killer Star (France 2, 2003).
New Killer Star (Late Show With David Letterman, 2003).
New Killer Star (Last Call with Carson Daly, 2003).
New Killer Star (A Reality Tour, 2003).
New Killer Star (Die Harald Schmidt Show (@36:50 in), 2003).
New Killer Star (Rove Live, 2004).
New Killer Star (live, 2004).

17 March 2003: Walked around Battery Park at lunchtime. Tourists wearing Statue of Liberty headbands; two Ghanese men selling watches from suitcases; a strange lifelessness to everything. Walked through Castle Clinton, west to the shattered globe that used to stand in the plaza of the Trade Center. Went to a bar after work with D, H and G for a St. Patrick’s drink. “When we’ve taken out Hussein, we’re going to take out that guy in North Korea,” D said. But he didn’t want the NCAA tournament to begin only to have to be postponed.

Instead of heading north, he walks down to Canal Street, with its scaffolds and traffic, men selling bootleg DVDs and CDs on blankets spread on the sidewalk (he spies a ChangesBowie, its cover art in the wan smear-colors of an aging printer; he considers buying it, realizes he has no cash). He takes Church Street. He picks up the old burning smell around the time he crosses Chambers and at Barclay he stops. Barriers fence barriers. Behind steel and aluminum grates ten or twenty feet high are long-necked cranes, a tortoise-like dump truck porting dirt around. People move in sagging lines, making lethargic pilgrimage. They take pictures of themselves and their friends in front of a construction site. Men in American-flag hats and bald eagle sweatshirts sell photographs of an exploding building.

The words come soon enough. See the great white scar/over Battery Park… Or is it great white star? The bloodied earth or the place we dream of escaping to?

A white scar is one that’s nearly healed, but the skin can lie. His friends call up to see if he’s ready to go out yet: I’m not better, he says. I’m not going to be better. He keeps a lost city in its head and every day he loses another piece of it. Was there ever a guy with a cobbler stand on Dey Street? Where were the non-fiction books in the Borders: upstairs or downstairs? Were there trees in the lobbies? What kind? How tall were they? What color were the walls of the Cortlandt St. station? Who but we remember these? No, we forget them, too.

gz2002

5 April 2003: It is strange–you wouldn’t know this conflict was raging from any walk through New York. Few conversations are about it; protests are generally small and confined. Some graffiti—Bush Is Hitler sort of thing. The war has become this sort of abstract, bad news from far away, like daily reports of a great forest fire somewhere.

I’m not a political commenter, but I think there are times when I’m stretched to at least implicate what’s happening, politically,” Bowie told an interviewer in 2003. “There was some need, in a very abstract way, towards the wrongs that are being made at the moment.”

“New Killer Star” shares qualities of other “public” Bowie songs. The lyric’s run of sharp, disconnected details call back to the shell-shocked narrator of “Time Will Crawl“; its lyrical tone is a muted, older version of the raging, bewildered man who’s flipping through TV channels in “It’s No Game.” Only its first verse addresses a political “subject”: the empty bowl that once was the World Trade Center, the sutured hole in the ground. The rest of the song’s a man trying to distract and persuade himself by watching the skies, watching television, cottoning his memory with scenes from old films.

There is a feeling [in NYC] that it’s not over yet,” Bowie told Virgin Radio back home in June 2003. “I think everyone’s sort of expecting something to happen. I think the idea of terrorist action in bars and restaurants and that kind of thing, being cited as targets, is somewhere in everyone’s mind.”

So he winches up a routine. The song structure is the four-panel-grid of a comic strip (the bubbles and actions/the little details in color): establishing shot, start joke, build joke, punchline. So here: riff, verse, pre-chorus, two-part refrain (punchline: the title’s a British musician mocking the way the President of the United States pronounces “nuclear”). Eight-bar break. Repeat. The backing singers and the drums follow the same shifting patterns throughout, as if keeping to a map. The guitar/bass riff becomes the pre-chorus vocal melody (duh-DAH DAH, “I’m READ-Y”). In the refrains, the singers are replaced by a high keyboard line, then they’re called back in for the closer (cue tambourine). Do it twice and you’re out. The only variables in the mix are some thin, distorted, sometimes looped guitar atmospherics by David Torn, which sing through the track like telephone wires.

03trip

I read someone a while back (blanking on the name) who said that Bowie should ideally lack nationality—that he was best as a Swiss resident, a man seemingly without a country or culture. But Bowie’s life in Switzerland was a set of lost, comfortable years. He’d been more alive as an artist when he was a Beckenhamite and a Londoner, when he was a Berliner, even a Los Angeleno. In Switzerland he’d been clean. He needed a city’s dirt in his blood again. So without even intending it, he’d become a New Yorker. By 2003, the only residence he owned was in the city. He’d raise his child there. He’s still pretty much there.

It’s a bit like being on holiday in a place I’ve always wanted to go to, that doesn’t come to an end,” he said of living in New York. “I always feel like a stranger here. I am an outsider. I really am still a Brit, there’s no avoiding it. But I’ve got friends here. I probably know this town better than I know the new LondonI can walk around here and find my way far better than I can in Chelsea. I’ve forgotten all the streets. [He mimes befuddlement]. Where did Clareville Grove used to be?

The album he assembled in early 2003 was his “New York” album. Not in the way “Heroes” had been, he told Interview: “In Berlin, I was really dealing with a lot of negativity that I had to lose.” Whereas in New York “there’s a certain energy you get here. I really felt the sidewalk,” he told Mikel Jollett. (You could say Bowie hedged his bets, buying in 2003 a 64-acre mountain near Woodstock with the rumored intention of building a retreat there, though apparently he never has.)

So “New Killer Star” distilled a New Yorker’s emotional reaction to her city becoming the stage of a national tragedy, used as the justification for national retribution (which includes the torture report whose grotesque details have leaked on a slow drip the day I finished this piece).

NYC was, and still is, disliked by much of its country. Two examples from my Nineties: a security guard at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, asking me my final destination, then coldly shaking his head and saying “I’m very sorry to hear that.” A man in an Amtrak train bar car outside Philadelphia, asking me where I’m from, growing agitated, pushing into me. “I was in that city once and I did not like it. Me and that city do not get along.” There was a compact of sorts. People who lived in NYC were pitied but were generally left alone. There’s a David Johansen song written during the Guiliani years, in which Johansen complains that the old order—guys like him ranging around on the street, tourists on buses gawking at him—had started breaking down. They had started getting off the buses, he said. After 9/11, it got worse.

Others are watching us [now]. I don’t think we ever felt that before,” Bowie told Anthony DeCurtis soon after he finished Reality. “There’s a slight unease. We really felt freewheeling and that ‘tomorrow belongs to us,’ anything can happen. Now there’s not quite that swaying surge of hopefulness.

nks

4 May 2003: We went to the Village Underground to see Hammell on Trial, a middle-aged bald man who swears a lot and punishes his acoustic guitar. “Where were the weapons of mass destruction?” he yelled. “A few guys in a tent with gasoline is not a weapon of mass destruction!” “What do you know, man?”: drunk voice in audience.

“New Killer Star” was a typical magpie construction for Bowie: its bass/guitar riff (in part by Tony Visconti, retained from the demos) was essentially the chorus hook of Little Peggy March’s “I Will Follow Him,” with a touch of Blur’s “Coffee and TV.” Nicholas Pegg noted how some of the song was lifted from “”87 and Cry,” from melodies to chorus hooks (and you realize how much the “disgraced” Never Let Me Down is resurfacing on this album).

It was Reality‘s lead single, and it had some hooks: Torn’s “stuttering” opening guitar riff, the vocal tags that enliven the verses, the subtle way the verse’s A minor chord is swapped for a bright A major in the pre-chorus, the grand refrain that promises an escape route. “Iiiii’ve discovered a star!” Bowie sings, Gail Ann Dorsey and Catherine Russell cheer him on. Even if it turns out to be another thing to lay waste to a chunk of the city, it still shines nicely, hanging in the sky above the park. He’ll be optimistic even if it kills him. “The ghost of the tragedy that happened [in NYC] is reflected in the song, but I’m trying to make something more positive out of it,” he told Performing Songwriter. “We have to assume that for every piece of awfulness there’s a good thing…[but] I’m telling you it’s a struggle to find a ray of hope.”

Maybe it was there on the ground, on the streets, somewhere still in the beaten-up, gentrified, overpriced, domesticated old bird of a city. “I still love this town. I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” Bowie admitted to DeCurtis. “I am a New Yorker: It’s strange; I never thought I would be.”

new killa

Recorded: (backing tracks) January-February 2003,(lead guitars, vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios. Released 16 September 2003 on Reality and as the album’s lead-off single on 29 September (the single edit, which trims intro and outro, appears on Nothing Has Changed): because it was released as a DVD single, “New Killer Star” didn’t qualify for singles charts, so it officially charted nowhere in the world).

Top: Beth Keiser, “Fritz Koenig’s Sphere Dedicated in Battery Park,” March 2002; Joshua James Arcady, “Ground Zero” 9/11/02; Christian Brothers High School band visits Ground Zero, March 2003.

All journal entries by me: NYC, 2003.


Love Missile F1-11

November 25, 2014

lovemissle

Love Missile F1-11 (Sigue Sigue Sputnik).
Love Missile F1-11 (Sigue Sigue Sputnik, video).
Love Missile F1-11 (Bowie).

I want to be successful and yet never out of touch with things. I don’t want to be someone who’s made into a pop icon and then doesn’t know how to save himself. I don’t want to become David Bowie or Mick Jagger.

What do you think is wrong with them?

I think they’ve cheated an awful lot of people. They’ve manipulated an awful lot of people and they’ve become cliches of themselves.

Martin Degville (Sigue Sigue Sputnik), “Starry Eyed and Laughing,” Paul Morley, NME, 8 March 1986.

Bowie’s cover of Sigue Sigue Sputnik‘s “Love Missile F1-11,” cut during the Reality sessions, was likely never in serious consideration to make the album, but it proved ideal for a B-side (issued on the European/Canadian “New Killer Star” singles). His cover’s cheekiness surpassed that of his take on “Pablo Picasso,” but Bowie wisely didn’t try to match the Sputnik track in excess. Instead his take seemed more an attempt to replicate “the anarchic dub sound of the [track’s] Portastudio demos,” as Sputnik head Tony James described them.

Sputnik began in 1982 when Generation X bassist James, seeing how much fun his old singer was having selling out, put together a band dedicated to scavenging pop junk from the past three decades and stringing bits of it together like Christmas lights. Elvis Costello, with some admiration, summarized the plan in 1986: It’s like Tony James was saying (assumes thick-ear drawl), “we thought we’d get some designer violence, mix it up with some BMX bikes and computer games, models with big tits, fast cars.”.. It’s funny. As long as you don’t have to listen to the record.”

EMI soon signed them, according to legend for £4 million* (Costello: “this daft record company EMI—how can they fall for it twice in ten years?”). For its investment, EMI got a #3 single (“Love Missile”), a Top 10 LP and a brief tour that was sporadically marked by performative violence**. Sputnik took too long to make a follow-up and were over by 1988. Yet the band (or, perhaps more correctly, the project) was well ahead of its time, whether in its use of “found” film dialogue or in its crass commercialism, with Sputnik offering corporations the opportunity to buy ad space between tracks on its LP (L’Oreal and i-D Magazine did). Its sense of pop music as a game that one can win by following a corrupt rulebook, of pop consuming itself and spitting itself back out, was a rough draft of what the KLF would soon pull off.

Sputnik’s epitaph was “Love Missile,” with its Cold War sex and drugs lyric (nuclear missiles as both erect penises and heroin needles), its shameless recycling of Bo Diddley rhythms and Eddie Cochran guitar riffs, its Giorgio Moroder mix littered with chunks of repurposed dialogue from the likes of Scarface and A Clockwork Orange. Bowie recognized the song for what it was—the Ziggy Stardust of 1986, and a sleeker and flashier beast than his old plastic rocker ever had been. He sang it straight, digging into the song (“there goes MY love ROCKET RED!” he boasts in admiration), and you wish he’d sandwiched the track into Reality as a nose-tweak for yet another American war getting underway. One of his fizziest, loopiest, most committed and most enjoyable covers.

Recorded January-February 2003, March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 29 September 2003 on the “New Killer Star” CD single (ISO-Columbia COL 674275 9/ ISO-Columbia 38K 3445).

* The £4 million figure was a complete fabrication, James later said: “Journalist Chris Salewitz had randomly plucked that figure out of the air for a piece he was writing about us in the Sunday Times and four million pounds translated into six million dollars, so we became the “six million dollar band” which appealed to me because I loved the “Six Million Dollar Man.”

** From an NME review of a Sputnik gig in Reading, 1986: “It was a fairly normal pop concert. Apart, that is, from the purple-faced Nazi on my left who screamed obscenities at a girl he barged past on his way to the front, or the rotund drunk who clutched his real ale and hollered “Bastards! Wankers! Violence!” while flailing towards the stage, and the Fleet Street photographers who eagerly raced around the building after a young man with a bloody head.

Costello quotes from an interview in Sounds, 1 March 1986.

Top: “Torbakhopper,” “what’s in your window : ishootwindows, new york city (2003).”