The Blackstar sessions of early January 2015 were devoted to revisits (“’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore”) and to most of Bowie’s Lazarus songs. The next round, in the first week of February, began similarly—a revised “Sue” was first on the agenda. But on the second day of the session, Bowie and Donny McCaslin’s band turned to a bewildering-sounding demo.
Mark Guiliana recalled that the file “had two loops on top of each other, creating a very dense groove, which I couldn’t play all at once.” Where some demos had been taped in the studio with Tony Visconti and a small group, this one was pure Bowie—the work of hours of home tinkering. There were synthesized string parts, some of which McCaslin would score for flute. Then there was the lyric. As Jason Lindner said, “when we first heard the demo, we said, ‘what the hell? What are those words?’”
Cheena so sound so titi up this malchick say!
Party up moodge nanti vellocet round on Tuesday!
“The lyrics are wacky but a lot of British people, especially Londoners, will get every word,” Tony Visconti said before the album’s release. A charitable belief: it’s more fair to say that those fluent in the Nadsat of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange could decipher about three-fourths of “Girl Loves Me”; those conversant in the secret gay language Polari could pick up a few other bits.
A single verse is chanted more than sung—Bowie harping on one note until the end of each phrase, when he moves up first by a third (“this-malchik”) and ultimately an octave, by almost yodeling the last note (“say-ay” “da-aay”). The verse lines have a tumbling consonance (“diz–zy–snatch,” “po–po blind to the pol-ly”) and a rhythm of chasing short-held notes (“chee-na”) with slightly longer ones (“so sound”). Momentum builds as Bowie crams in more syllables with each line. “As he was listening back, I could see him experimenting with different words,” McCaslin recalled, which likely explains why Bowie tweaked his Nadsat—“yarbles” (balls) became “garbles,” “spatchka” (sleep) became “spatchko,” and “malchick” (boy) is sung more as “malcheck.”
He’d had secret languages before, on Low: the trans-European un-language of “Warszawa”; the homonymic blurs of “Some Are” and “Subterraneans.” Then, he was dedicated to melody—the “nonsense” words of “Warszawa” are gorgeous to sing, with a gentle lift. Now he sang “Girl Loves Me” as raw pieces of sound—the words harsh, short, jagged, packed together like bullets.
Of the two dialects in the song, Polari (or Palare) is a spoken tongue, dating back well over a century, a pidgin language with roots in Italian and Shelta, the tongue of Irish and British Travelers. As Ian Hancock wrote, it was “the language of the theater, the circus, show business, and…certain male homosexual communities, especially those with connections to show business and with life at sea.” Nadsat is fictional, devised in the late Fifties by Anthony Burgess, who raided Russian for many of his words, along with Cockney rhyming slang. Both are the tongues of subcultures, of outsiders, of young toughs, of (fictional, likely, inadvertent) criminals. Both connect to Bowie’s youth.
He’d loved Clockwork Orange in the Ziggy Stardust days, with Stanley Kubrick’s film a sartorial guide for the Spiders From Mars, and Nadsat heard in “Suffragette City” (“say droogie don’t crash here!”). “The whole idea of having this phony-speak thing—mock Anthony Burgess-Russian speak that drew on Russian words and put them into the English language, and twisted old Shakespearean words around—this kind of fake language…fitted in perfectly with what I was trying to do in creating this fake world or this world that hadn’t happened yet,” Bowie recalled in 1993. “It was like trying to anticipate a society that hadn’t happened.”
He’d picked up Polari from the mid-Sixties BBC radio comedy Round the Horne and its Polari-fluent camp pair “Julian and Sandy.” And more directly, from being a young, beautiful man at the hub of Sixties British gay life—the London-based theater and music scenes—and the intimate of gay men like the mime Lindsay Kemp and the composer Lionel Bart. “David uses words like “varda” and “super” quite a lot. He’s gay, he says,” as Michael Watts wrote in the 1972 Melody Maker “Bowie comes out” piece. Nicholas Pegg does a typically thorough job of noting various bits of Polari in Bowie lyrics of the period, from “traders” (“Bewlay Brothers”) to “trolling” (“Looking For a Friend”).
“Translated” (my attempt here), “Girl Loves Me” mixes droogs and drag queens, police and cheenas. Tacky things drive the gang wild; party now because we’ll be out of drugs tomorrow. Set up the old men and take their cash; screw in the street, sleep it off in jail. It’s the balls-out, perhaps literally, sequel to “Dirty Boys.”
Where did it come from? Bowie’s late-in-life fandom for shows like Peaky Blinders, full of sharp young Birmingham toughs rumbling in the streets, maybe. A few books, as usual (see below). An older man with an unpromising diagnosis, who wakes one morning to wonder where the time has gone. Or, more succinctly: Where the FUCK did Monday go?
Sloosh to Polezny Mr. Murphy
“We will have a new ‘body’ in the studio as of Tuesday,” Bowie reportedly told his group. “He is James Murphy of LCD fame. He is a lovely bloke and he will get in the way and make lots of suggestions and we will have a ball.”
James Murphy had struck up a friendship with Bowie around 2013. Having retired LCD Soundsystem (temporarily), he was producing Arcade Fire’s Reflektor, on which Bowie cut a guest vocal. Introduced in the studio, Murphy opened with “you know I’m an enormous fan of your work, because I steal from you liberally,” to which Bowie lobbed back, “you can’t steal from a thief, darling.” Upon Bowie’s return to making music, Murphy was often talked up as a future producer. It seemed apt. Murphy was a dance-rock classicist who lived in awe of Bowie’s late Seventies albums, forever trekking back to them, then building shrines to them.
He was too much in the sun, it turned out. In recent interviews, Murphy said he’d been slated as a co-producer on Blackstar but had backed out, feeling “overwhelmed” by the idea. “It takes a different kind of person than me to walk into that room and be like, I know exactly… I belong here, I should definitely insert myself in this relationship because they just can’t manage to make a record without me,” he told Radio One this summer.
Instead Murphy envisioned himself as being the Brian Eno of the sessions, to the point of bringing in an EMS Synthi AKS, Eno’s weapon of choice in the Seventies. But he lacked the nerve to go the full Eno—he wouldn’t be directing ace musicians to play random chords at arbitrary cues, or erasing a half-finished track that wasn’t working. He kept to the sidelines, filtering guitars and keyboards through the “briefcase” EMS, including some of Lindner’s keyboard and synth lines on “Girl Loves Me” (see the burbling percussive line mixed left through much of the track). Murphy “was just in there hanging out,” Lindner recalled. “They weren’t clear on his role.”
That said, the final shape of “Girl Loves Me” apparently owes a good deal to him. “James took ‘Girl Loves Me’ to his home studio and did this whole other thing with it,” McCaslin said. “Mark and Jason heard snippets of it when they were over there working. Mark was saying it was really different from how he recorded it.”
Despite Murphy’s textures, the track is one of the more spare productions on the album, its minimal harmonic structure (shifts between two chords for all but the bridge) borne for long stretches by low-mixed keyboard or synthesized strings. The driving wheel is Guiliana’s drum ‘n’ bass-inspired snare and kick figures, with rapid bursts of notes on his cymbals. “I tried to capture the feeling of the halftime backbeat with the undercurrent of the busier 16th-note details,” he said. “The ghost notes in the groove are heard through the close mic on the snare, but the backbeat is being captured through David’s vocal mic. There was lots of bleed since we were all in the same room, which often led to very interesting sonic results. This, like many of the other songs, is a full drum take.”
Tim Lefebvre doubled his twisting, harmonically free bassline (as Lindner noted of his friend’s performance, “the bass note is not representative of the key or the root—it’s really coloristic” ) on guitar, borrowing Bowie’s instrument along with his “little multi-effects pedal…it was a cheap little thing but it sounded great.” McCaslin worked in the backline, tracking alto flute and C flutes for a gorgeous interlude in which the song breaks character for some twenty seconds to let in the sunlight. Then it’s nightfall again.
The center of it all is Bowie’s vocal, tracked to become an echoing patrol in the verse, cheering himself in the refrains (the wonderful GO! GO! GO! GO! GO! GO! GO! that starts at 1:26); doubled over an octave for the bridge; murmuring conspiratorial sleazy “heey cheena”s under high, wavering “girl…loves…mes,” reminiscent of his vocals on “No One Calls.”
“The brilliance of that writing,” Lefebvre recalled. “How it’s all dark gibberish and then it turns into this beautiful melody. The chords are very interesting—aggressive but at the same time very languid and soft.”
There was a disgraced ancestor, as often with Bowie. Did he recall something he’d written decades before about dealers, druggies, and hustlers, whose semi-spoken nasally-intoned verses spooled into great, bounding refrains? In “Girl Loves Me,” the oft-maligned “Shining Star (Making My Love)” lives again. All that’s missing is the Mickey Rourke rap.
Why write the song as dark gibberish anyway? For a laugh, in part; for the joy of doing it. As Hancock wrote about Polari, its function wasn’t to be a separate tongue “but rather a pool of secret words sufficient to make cryptic any utterance that needs to be kept from outsiders” (essential for a time when homosexuality was illegal) and “a factor of social cohesion for those who need it.” Polari was an outsider’s inside language. And Burgess wrote his novel in Nadsat because he wanted to wall off his youth subculture from merciless time. It worked. Alex and his fellow droogs remain in the present today, and still suggest a brutal future, where they would have been defanged had they been saying “daddy-o” and “groovy.”
The refrain of “Girl Loves Me” stands outside of its own song: Where the FUCK did Monday go? cracks it open. Bowie’s line about sitting in the chestnut tree bred all sorts of speculations. Is it the Chestnut Tree Cafe of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and so suggesting betrayal? (Bowie could never shake free of that book; it was to him what his Berlin albums are to Murphy.) Or, in an inspired suggestion by Yanko Tsvetkov, is it a nod to Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s 100 Years of Solitude? In the latter, the patriarch José Arcadio Buendía is visited by the ghost of a man he’d killed years before. They chat for so long that time stops for him—José Arcadio has gone mad, trapped in a perpetual Monday, while for the rest of his family the week proceeds as usual. Raging, he starts to destroy his house: “Ten men were needed to get him down, fourteen to tie him up, twenty to drag him to the chestnut tree in the courtyard, where they left him tied up, barking in the strange language and giving off a green froth at the mouth.”
Barking in the strange language. Words from futures that never were, from bubble-cultures lost to time, jumbled and mangled and chewed up, made into a cipher of lust and spite, called out with malicious glee. But you can go lost when you go back too far to find the sources. Stay in the present—keep in the sound. “Girl Loves Me” should be done after two and a half minutes but it hangs on for longer, unwilling to stop. The defiant joy of the refrains; the pleasure Bowie takes in yelling FUCK! at the world. He’s in his tree (even if he’s been stuffed in it, left to rot), piling up what he can. All the lost dirty boys and dirty old men, the traders and droogs and crooked cops. Sex, money, pills, schemes—the great roil and filth of life, another tide sweeping out. Who the fuck’s going to mess with him? Nobody.
Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 February 2015, Magic Shop; (overdubs, treatments) ca. March-April 2015, Murphy’s home studio; (vocals) 16 April, 17 May 2015, Human Worldwide.
First release: 8 January 2016, Blackstar.
Sources, thanks: “Crayon to Crayon” for the “No One Calls” tip; Ian Hancock’s “Shelta and Polari,” from Language in the British Isles, and Paul Baker’s Polari: the Secret Language of Gay Men (Polari’s spoken in a scene in Velvet Goldmine, and, of course, in Morrissey’s “Piccadilly Palare” (“so bona to vada, oh you, your lovely eek and your lovely riah“). Musician quotes: Uncut, Modern Drummer, Pedals and Effects, Mojo.