I Can’t Read

May 17, 2012

I Can’t Read.
I Can’t Read (rehearsal, fragment, 1989).
I Can’t Read (live, 1989).
I Can’t Read (live, Oy Vey Baby, 1991).
I Can’t Read (Bridge School Benefit, 1996).
I Can’t Read (Bowie and Gabrels, acoustic, radio broadcast, 1997).
I Can’t Read (remake, 1997).
I Can’t Read (remake, video, 1997).
I Can’t Read (live, 1999).

Bowie, a keen judge of his own work, singled out “I Can’t Read” as the best song on Tin Machine: he brought up the track in mid-Nineties interviews as an example of what Tin Machine had gotten right, and he revised it in 1996, keeping it in his live sets for the rest of the decade.

As Tom Ewing wrote about “Ashes to Ashes,” Bowie’s pop was always at its strongest when it was him alone in his house of mirrors, and “I Can’t Read” is the Beckettian epilogue to Bowie’s run of songs-of-songwriting: “Quicksand,” written at the early vertiginous height of Bowie’s compositional powers; “Sound and Vision” where a weakened Bowie summons a possibly-departed muse; “Ashes”, where Bowie entombed himself in his work. “I Can’t Read” is the end of the line—a man bled clean of inspiration, left only to mutter curses at an audience that inexplicably wants something more from him.

“I Can’t Read” came out of Bowie’s summer 1988 demo sessions with Reeves Gabrels (who co-wrote the music) and it stings of the wounds left from the Never Let Me Down/Glass Spider debacle. With that record and tour, Bowie had thought he’d ended his creative drought: Never was supposed to be his grand counter-move, his third-quarter rejuvenation. But the critics had disliked it, the public had been indifferent to it. He had played for stakes and lost. In the past, even when he felt dried up, he had tacked down and delivered. This time it just didn’t work, he had failed to eclipse himself; he faced the hard prospect that he could no longer write well.

As always with Bowie, there are mirrors reflecting mirrors—it’s a mistake to consider “I Can’t Read” being directly autobiographical. Rather, “Bowie-the-composer” had been a reoccurring character in his songs, whether as a central figure or popping up in Hitchcock-esque cameos (as in “Life on Mars?,” whose last verse ends with the camera rolling back, revealing “Bowie” as the director giving cues to his mousy-haired lead actress (“it’s about to writ again/as I ask you to focus on…“)). If Major Tom had been Bowie’s symbol of the lost promise of the Sixties, Bowie-the-composer had been his aesthetic surrogate, as “Nathan Zuckerman” was for Philip Roth, the vehicle through which Bowie showed the struggles of a belated artist, of being an inheritor wandering through an abandoned property, or, as here, being an emptied man in a dry season.

In “I Can’t Read” Bowie has illiteracy stand for creative barrenness—it’s a latter-day illiteracy, as a facility which had once come so easily is now lost. “Bowie” tries to capture a melody he’s come up with, but finds he can’t read music anymore, that he can’t play it, that even the constituent parts of music—the flats and sharps, chords, guitar tones, vocal phrasings—no longer make any sense. Much of the track is howling waves of feedback, as though noise is the only sound that Bowie can still find any meaning in. He watches TV, flicks from cop show to newscast. Going for a jog, he sees himself on a magazine cover. He’s a man reduced to his famous face, a mask with nothing behind it.

There are tastes of his former glories in the lyric: “countdown” calling back to Major Tom, or another reference to the buried “Shadow Man.” And Andy Warhol, having died in 1987, appears as a ghost. The obvious reference is Bowie’s tribute to Warhol from nearly two decades earlier. There Bowie had held all the power, dancing Warhol through his song like a marionette, using Warhol’s maxims about art and fakery to build his own plastic rock singers. Now Bowie’s reduced to arbitration: Andy, where’s my fifteen minutes? If all that remains open is a cheap celebrity high, come, let’s have it.

The only means forward is to move at a crawl, with a song that sounds like it’s going to collapse after every verse. “I Can’t Read” takes nearly a minute to get started: a basic 4/4 drumbeat, an occasionally querying bass, squalls of feedback. Finally Bowie begins to sing, keeping on a single note (just above the chord, E minor’s, root note) until he sinks a step down to close each phrase (“I-can’t-read-and-I-can’t-write down“). It’s a voice drained of any audible emotion, just a blank, observational tone; it’s like a man who’s survived a car crash calmly recounting the details to a policeman. Each meager vocal phrase trails off, leaving empty bars for Gabrels to fill—first with a primitive grinding riff, like a car stuck between gears, then even more inchoate lines.

The chorus finally comes, summoned by Hunt Sales’ table-rapping. Bowie, roused momentarily from his stasis, soars up a fifth and sounds light-headed. “I—can’t read shit anymore…I just can’t get it right, can’t get it right,” delivering the latter lines in a mocking sing-song, as though he’s taunting the listener. You want a melody? Here: blah blah blah. (The chords are also meat-and-potatoes rock & roll, just I-IV-V all the way through). And then, as if he can feel pain in his bones again for a moment, Bowie suddenly closes the chorus in exasperation: I CAN’T read SHIT, I CAN’T READ SHIT.

There seems nowhere to go next. The players meander, decide on running through the long intro again, but there’s the sense that anyone could just stop playing and let the song expire. You wonder if Bowie’s done with the thing too, but he comes back for another verse and chorus. After the last I CAN’T READ SHIT, the song is finally allowed to die.

For once Tin Machine makes sense, as the players’ indulgences, their lack of a common language, act out the song’s mood of self-loathing and resentment. The hiss of Hunt Sales’ ride cymbals in the chorus, his intrusive fills, add a cracked joy to Bowie’s admission of defeat. Tony Sales’ bassline hook in the chorus suggests Trevor Bolder’s jaunty line that drove “Suffragette City”: it’s as if the sound of Bowie’s past triumphs is eating through the recording. Kevin Armstrong, again low in the mix, adds perspective and nuance, sometimes paralleling the barely-there vocal melody on guitar. And the exuberant noise that Gabrels crafts is the counterpart to Bowie’s dispassionate vocal. It’s the way out, staring in Bowie’s face the whole time.

Bowie revised “I Can’t Read” as soon as he began playing it live. He told an interviewer that the Tin Machine tracks were works in progress, that the album versions of the songs were just initial attempts to capture them, and that the songs would be developed further on stage.

So in their short 1989 tour, the Machine slowed the tempo (the original “Read” goes at a fairly fast clip), letting it brood, as if to make the song more purgatorial, with Bowie throwing in lines from Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm” (which they were covering at the time). In 1991, the Machine flayed “Read” open on stage, letting Tony Sales’ bass sing through the intro. They gave it pantomime—Gabrels played a police car wail over the “watch the police car” line, Bowie mimed being crucified while singing “when you see a famous smile”—especially in the chorus, which they trashed up, making it sound like a piece of a Ziggy Stardust outtake, killing it off as it crested.

Bowie’s studio revision of “I Can’t Read,” recorded during the Earthling sessions in mid-1996 (he gave a preview of the new version at the Bridge School Benefit in California later that year), was intended to give the song a second chance to find an audience, so he sweetened it, gave it a studied melancholy, anchoring the verses on acoustic guitar strums, with Gabrels having an elegant acoustic solo midway through, and calming the mood with washes of synthesizer. The new “I Can’t Read” was tasteful (“I can’t read shit” had already been replaced by “I can’t reach it” during the live Machine shows): it was somber, proper music for exit titles, which it literally became, for Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm. Bowie altered the lyric, moving the second verse to the last, while in his new second verse, he replaced lines that had the soreness of memory with those filled with empty abstractions: Can I see the family smile? Can I reach tomorrow? Can I walk a missing mile? Can I feel, can I please? It was dull and false, an odd misreading of his own work. Even Warhol had gone missing.

Bowie rallied, though, restoring “I Can’t Read” to its original form for the “Hours” tour in 1999 (Bowie sang the Warhol line with venom this time, as if cursing over Warhol’s grave) and the chorus had a quiet majesty to it, a sense of faded glories being collectively recalled.

Yet none of these rewrites and rethinks surpassed the original, merciless Tin Machine version of the song. Recorded in under an hour one night in Nassau,* the original “I Can’t Read” is a singer dully picking at a wound while his band ignores him, screaming to themselves around him. Bowie’s long bid to reclaim his title in the Nineties is inconceivable without him having first made “I Can’t Read”—it was a reckoning, an exorcism, a confession; a song in which failure became a muse.

Recorded at Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. The live version recorded on 25 June 1989, at La Cigale, Paris was a B-side of the 12″ single version of “Tin Machine.” “I Can’t Read” was remade during the Earthling sessions in August-September 1996: it was released as a single (Velvel Records/ZYX 8757-8, #73 UK) in December 1997 and also appeared on The Ice Storm soundtrack.

* Either during a “gothic deluge” of a tropical storm (Trynka) or “under a full moon” (Buckley). Or perhaps on a less dramatic evening.

Top: Jim Kasson, “Paddington Station, London, 1988.”


Andy Warhol

March 2, 2010

Andy Warhol (first performance w/Dana Gillespie, 1971).
Andy Warhol (Hunky Dory).
Andy Warhol (Dana Gillespie, 1971).
David Bowie’s Factory Screen Test (14 September 1971).
Andy Warhol (live, 1972).
Andy Warhol (live, 1996).

What kind of man would paint a Campbell’s soup can? That’s what aggravates people. That’s the premise behind anti-style, and anti-style is the premise behind me.

David Bowie, ca. 1972.

William S. Burroughs: I don’t think that there is any person there. It’s a very alien thing, completely and totally unemotional. [Warhol]’s really a science fiction character. He’s got a strange green color.

Bowie: That’s what struck me. He’s the wrong color, this man is the wrong color to be a human being.

Bowie/Burroughs interview, Rolling Stone, February 1974.

Unlike Bowie’s earlier records, Hunky Dory is sequenced clearly: the first side showcases David Bowie, bright young composer, while the flip is the “tribute” side—the opening Biff Rose cover is followed by back-to-back homages to Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan and Lou Reed. Then, finally dispelling the past, the record closes with “The Bewlay Brothers,” a song no one but Bowie could have written.

Of the three tributes, “Andy Warhol” is the briefest and oddest, reflecting that unlike Dylan and (especially) Reed, who had been formative influences on Bowie, Warhol was a relatively new interest. Still, it was an intense one: Bowie’s seeming attempts to found a Bromley outpost of Warhol’s Factory was part of his overall fascination with Warhol’s world, as was his hobnobbing in 1971 with the London cast of Pork. Warhol maxims like “if you want to know all about me, just look at the surface of my paintings and films…there’s nothing behind it” fed Bowie’s designs for his own plastic rock & roll star.

In “Andy Warhol”‘s two verses, Bowie uses Warhol as a paper doll, placing him against various backdrops (“Andy walking, Andy tired…send him on a pleasant cruise”), observing his absent reactions, clucking at the tedium of his life (Warhol would’ve agreed that making art is boring). The chorus rewrites Warhol’s statement that he was indistinguishable from his paintings; to hang a Warhol on your wall is the same as (if not superior to) having Warhol over for dinner. The lyric views Warhol as he would view himself: at a distance, without visible emotion, and with a faint sense of amusement.

On the studio recording, Bowie’s detached vocal is met by a harshly-strummed, “dry” acoustic guitar accompaniment by Bowie and Mick Ronson, who plays the sinuous hook that first appears in the intro and returns at the ends of verses. The verses are built around the home key of E minor, moving from Em to A to C and ending strangely on the “leading tone” of D, which also begins the eight-bar chorus.

Furthering the alienation, the Hunky Dory track is presented as a deliberately artificial construct, a brief performance (only two verses and three choruses) framed by a fifty-second intro in which two synthesizer lines play while Bowie checks that his guitar’s in tune, and corrects producer Ken Scott’s pronunciation (“Andy Warhall, take one.” “It’s War-HULL, actually,” Bowie replies. “As in HULLS”), and a nearly minute-long guitar outro that seems intended to disorient a listener’s sense of time (for instance, the seemingly random stomps and handclaps). There are three guitars in the outro: one hits over and over on the chord (Em), another plays two alternating notes on the off-beats and the third (Ronson, I’m assuming) is the same chord shapes transposed over various frets on the guitar (there’s a better tab visual at this site). It ends with Bowie and Ronson applauding themselves.

Bowie had written “Andy Warhol” for the singer Dana Gillespie, who debuted it at Bowie’s 3 June 1971 BBC session (Gillespie’s recording of it, while cut in the summer of 1971, wasn’t released until 1974’s Weren’t Born a Man), and the Hunky Dory version was recorded ca. June-July 1971 (it served as the B-side of “Changes” in 1972, with the intro excised). Bowie played “Warhol” in two subsequent BBC radio sessions, as well as in many of his 1972 shows, then retired it. He later recast the song as a drum & bass-inspired piece in the mid-’90s that sounds more dated than the original. (And then there’s Rachel Stevens’ “Funky Dory.”)

Bowie and Warhol first met in New York in September 1971—Bowie happily let Warhol film and photograph him, then played Warhol an acetate of “Andy Warhol” (which Warhol hated so much allegedly he fled the room). They would meet several times over the following decade but only formally. Warhol died in 1987, and Bowie closed the circle by playing him on screen (wearing one of Warhol’s own wigs) in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat.

Top: Andy Warhol, Dennis Hopper, 1971.