Always Crashing In the Same Car

March 17, 2011

Always Crashing In the Same Car.
Always Crashing In the Same Car (live, 1997).
Always Crashing In the Same Car (acoustic w/Reeves Gabrels, broadcast, 1997).
Always Crashing In the Same Car (live, 1999).
Always Crashing in the Same Car (Musique Plus, 1999).
Always Crashing In the Same Car (live, 2004).

From Warsaw back to Los Angeles: “Always Crashing in the Same Car,” one of the last songs completed on Low, is a final meditation on Bowie’s LA period. The lyric was allegedly inspired by a) Bowie, spying a drug dealer who had ripped him off, ramming his car into the dealer’s, or b) Bowie speeding around an underground parking garage like a lunatic, half-trying to kill himself (the latter occurring either in LA or Berlin, depending on who you read). Both stories seem a bit suspect, especially the idea of Bowie as an avenging Sonny Corleone type. “Crashing” seems to be atoning for something, though; it’s a purgatorial island in the middle of Low‘s manic side.

Its two 16-bar verses offer mildly different scenarios—the first has Bowie speeding on the street (“kilometers from the red light”), the second has him driving around a parking garage “touching close to 94”—but the chorus is the same, an endlessly reoccurring car crash. The sense of life as an auto accident puts Bowie back in alignment with JG Ballard: if Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” seems to predict Ballard’s High Rise, so “Crashing” reflects Ballard’s “motorway” novels Crash and Concrete Island (particularly Crash, one of the most gruesome novels in the English language, with its array of lurid car-crash deaths and copulations).

Bowie’s old Buddhism crops up as well, with the idea of Bowie’s LA life as having been a time of samsara, a cyclic period of endless suffering and no advancement; a pointless life, one equivalent to getting into a different auto accident every day (but in the same car, of course, so even that variety is lessened).

Yet the music undermines the lyric’s sense of cyclical decay, its lack of escape clauses. The first verse is somber enough, with Dennis Davis’ drums for once being muted and buried in the mix (the 16ths he plays on his hi-hat are processed to sound like another synth line). Bowie’s Chamberlin provides the main hook, a 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2 pattern that later becomes an abbreviated two-note motif; Eno’s synth contributions shimmer in the mix, with one line sounding much like a Theremin.

Then things begin to shake up. There’s already been a taste of this in the first verse, with the traditional G major to E minor progression upended by an odd move to F major (it’s out of the home key—it should be an F#). In the second verse, Bowie extends his vocal line, moving into bars left vacant in the first verse. So “as I put my foot down to the floor” is four notes more than the first verse’s “take it on the road“; as the verse ends, Bowie lengthens the ends of phrases (compare “must have been touching close to nine-ty-four,” which fits in the space Bowie had sung “working left and right” in the first verse).

The players come alive as well. Davis’ loud Harmonized drums appear in the second verse and he throws in some fills (fittingly, under “round and round” in the second verse). Ricky Gardiner, who already offered a four-bar guitar solo at the end of the first chorus, essentially takes over the song, getting the entire third verse to deliver a masterful solo (Gardiner’s tone and the sharp melodic sense of his lines is similar to Tom Verlaine’s work on Marquee Moon). Bowie hummed the first three notes of the solo to him, Gardiner took off from there.* And where most of Low‘s “rock” tracks are faded out, “Crashing” slowly comes to a complete stop, ending on a resounding E minor chord. The past, rather than endlessly repeating, gets resolved with a show of force.

While the rhythm tracks were cut during the early Low sessions at Château d’Hérouville, Bowie was stuck for a time coming up with lyrics and a vocal melody (running through ideas, he even sang a verse in a parody of Bob Dylan’s voice, though tragically the vocal track was wiped—Tony Visconti later described it as being “spooky, not funny”). Hugo Wilcken makes a good case that Bowie rifled through Syd Barrett solo tracks for lyrical cues (e.g., “No Good Trying”: “you’re spinning around and around in a car with electric lights flashing very fast.“)

Recorded September 1976 at Château d’Hérouville, and Sept.-Oct. 1976, Hansa, Berlin. Performed live in 1997 (Bowie and Reeves Gabrels did an acoustic version for the radio station WRXT on 16 October 1997) and also for the BBC on 27 June 2000. Its last performance to date was an encore in Brisbane, Australia, on 17 February 2004.

* Gardiner would soon co-write Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger,” a track that, as Bowie didn’t write it and never performed it, won’t be featured in our survey. So enjoy this fantastic live performance of it, from ’77.

Top: Joel-Peter Witkin, “Los Angeles Death,” 1976.