Segue: Baby Grace (a Horrid Cassette)

February 1, 2013

sad girl blue

Segue: Baby Grace (a Horrid Cassette).

When I listen to Outside now—yes, I do play my own records at home—it’s also Baby Grace’s voice that touches me most. Perhaps because I based her story on a girl I know very well and who’s been through a whole bunch of bad relationships in which she was abused. It seemed like she really picked that kind of man each time…

Bowie, interview with Humo (Belgium), 1995.

A mystery needs a corpse to set things in motion, so Bowie opens his narrative with “the art-ritual murder of Baby Grace Blue,” whose eviscerated, dismembered and mutilated body is found (in various pieces) at the Museum of Modern Parts, in Oxford Town, NJ. The gruesome state of Grace’s body is described in obscenely loving detail in the first section of the Nathan Adler diary, and the first character “segue” you hear on Outside is Grace’s, allegedly her last words, found on a “horrid cassette.”

Bowie was playing with a tangle of cultural references here: Laura Palmer, the dead girl who lies at the heart of Twin Peaks, was obviously an influence. But there are echoes of actual horrors, too. As Nicholas Pegg noted, the Moors Murders tape, in which 10-year-old Lesley Ann Downey was taped pleading for her life by her killers, was an inescapable reference for a man who’d been a teenager in Britain in the Sixties. The “Grace” segue was also in line with a horror film trope that developed in the Eighties and Nineties: the use of “real” footage in a fictional horror. With cassette and video recording having become cheap and near-universal by the late Eighties, this enabled horror film directors to up the ante by including videotaped “real” killings (the most effective, and absolutely, utterly horrifying, in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) and using “found” footage to intensify a film’s sense of realism. This culminates in something like 1999’s Blair Witch Project, entirely filmed via hand-held video camera.

What to make of Grace’s segue? It’s a blend of absurdity and voyeuristic creepiness, with Reeves Gabrels playing wailing blues guitar licks and Bowie having a blast at imitating the rambling speech patterns of an adolescent (one admittedly under the sway of “interest” drugs). He told interviewers he got a kick out of gender-bending again. But Grace’s story, in which she hazily describes being prepared like a sacrificial lamb for a ritual that will result in her body becoming a bloody plaything for sadists, has enough real-life analogues in the past few decades that Bowie’s “tape” can come off as exploitative and cruel. (The original version of the segue on Leon is more disturbing, as Bowie’s voice is a fairly natural-sounding imitation of a teenage girl’s voice: on Outside, he altered his voice to near-Chipmunk speed). One of Bowie’s most (deliberately) tasteless works.

Recorded ca. May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and Westside Studios, London, with overdubs at Brondesbury Villas Studio, London, January 1995.

Top: Bowie attempts a second adolescence.