A Small Plot of Land

February 14, 2013

ted untitled

A Small Plot of Land.
A Small Plot of Land (alternate version, Basquiat soundtrack).
A Small Plot of Land (Bowie and Mike Garson, live, 1995).
A Small Plot of Land (live, 1995).
A Small Plot of Land (live, 1996).

After having spent so long in the hypothetical never-was (scrapped tapes, character segues, indecipherable prose), it’s a comfort, if a cold one, to finally reach the Outside songs. These were in two blocks: pieces that came out of the Montreux sessions in March 1994, mostly improvised by Bowie and Eno with Reeves Gabrels, Mike Garson, Erdal Kizilcay and Sterling Campbell, and the block recorded in early 1995 at the Hit Factory in New York. The latter featured Gabrels, Garson, old Bowie hands Carlos Alomar and Kevin Armstrong and a new rhythm section of Yossi Fine and Joey Baron.*

The latter songs were generally a catchier and punchier set: the Hit Factory is where “Strangers When We Meet,” “Outside,” “We Prick You,” “No Control” and “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town” came together. The songs that began in Switzerland (with some exceptions) tended towards the grim, theatrical and rambling. Many of them shared a common port of origin: Bowie’s old obsession Scott Walker (more in “The Motel”).

“A Small Plot of Land”** is certainly Walker-haunted, with its references to “Nite Flights” (“swings through the tunnels”) and Bowie’s condor-swoops on the reoccurring “POOR dunces” suggest Walker’s strangled tenor. (A live version from Utrecht in 1996 sounds like Bowie is trying to win a Walker impersonation contest). But “Small Plot,” a song built on running collisions among its players, is also an example of the sound that Bowie and Eno had wanted from the Leon sessions. The track opens with Garson on piano, doing his typically frenetic wire-dancing, but he’s soon fighting to be heard against Campbell, who keeps constant fours with his bass drum while seemingly trying to throw Garson off with a rocketing snare pattern. For over a minute nothing advances, no verse appears; the song remains trapped in its intro. Campbell’s insurrections harden into a pattern—he’s stuck in a loop while Garson still has a measure of freedom allotted to him. Gabrels keeps upstage, playing a nagging pair of notes, mixed right, that are the twine holding everything together. Erdal Kizilcay’s bass seems to abandon the song after a few bars, as if he walked into a room and didn’t care for the atmosphere.

Bowie said about seventy percent of his lyric was pure computer-generated cut-up, hence lines like “he pushed at the pigmen.” Using a moderated sprechstimme, he worked his set of random words into a group of mourners. From the first note, he established a funereal march pace: a two-note opening phrase (“poor soul,” “prayer can’t,” “poor dunce,” “brains talk”), where Bowie holds the first note while letting the second, lower in pitch, quickly expire; and two or three “spoken” closing phrases, with just a few notes emphasized or raised in pitch (“he never knew what HIT HIM,” “and it HIT HIM so”). This pattern builds to the two final “POOR dunces,” with the last repeat ballooning the structure: a three-bar endurance of “POOOOOOR,” followed by a muttered “dunce.”

On to Gabrels’ solo, which he said took Adrian Belew’s solo on “Red Sails” and Robert Fripp’s on “Teenage Wildlife” as launching points. Aided by Garson pounding the bass octaves of his piano, Gabrels bloodies and dominates the track so much that when Bowie returns to sing another round of “poor souls,” he’s been reduced to a supporting role.

“Small Plot” had an alternate life. Eno arranged another version of the track for the Basquiat soundtrack, where Bowie sang, echoed by a delayed second vocal track, over “long, drifting overlays” of synthesizers, some intended to sound like motors and machines humming. Here Bowie’s dramatic build to the final “POOR SOUL” was scrapped in favor of a humbly-sung, double-tracked set of closing phrases; it’s the churchyard in place of the cathedral. Julian Schnabel, Basquiat‘s director, told Eno he thought it was a better version than the Outside track, and he used it in the film to score the death of Bowie’s Andy Warhol.

“Small Plot” was meant to be long, punishing and hard, and Bowie sequenced it to be unavoidable. On the album, slotted after the one-two punch of the title track and “Hearts Filthy Lesson,” it stilled the momentum. On stage in 1995 and 1996, Bowie plopped “Small Plot” dead in the middle of his sets, often prefacing it with a shabby man’s monologue on the poor dunce (“he wasted all his life, he was dumb, he deserved to die and now he’s dead!”) During early performances, he followed a routine where he first sang with his back to the audience, then paced in a tight circle, and during Gabrels’ solo, he walked across the stage pulling on cords, tugging down long, rectangular banners. Some thought it was a mime sequence symbolizing Bowie’s separation and alienation from the audience. Gabrels, in 2000, said it was just something for Bowie to do with himself during the solo, and it helped set the stage for the following number. “[It was] functional theatricality,” he said.

That said, the finest live performance Bowie ever gave of “Small Plot” was more in the Basquiat version’s line. At a private charity performance in New York in September 1995, Bowie sang it accompanied only by Garson, and he loosened the severity of his phrasing, allowing the song to mourn more openly. The climactic “POOR dunce,” sung gorgeously, led into a tolling Garson piano solo that seemed at times to be churning up Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” (“The last time we worked together before this year was in 1973, and as you can tell, we still haven’t found our way to finding a melody in those years,” Bowie cracked afterward.)

Recorded ca. May 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, with possible overdubs at the Hit Factory, NYC, ca. late January-March 1995. The Basquiat version may hail from the overdub sessions Eno and Bowie did at London’s Brondesbury Villas Studio in early January (there’s a reference to this version in Eno’s diary of the period). The version of “Small Plot” that Bowie sang accompanied only by Garson was for, in Nick Pegg’s words, “a private charity function at a New York hotel,” held on 18 September 1995. They also performed “My Death” there.

* One way to tell to which block a song belongs is its publishing: if it’s credited to Bowie/Eno/Gabrels/Kizilcay/Garson/Campbell, it’s definitely from the early Leon sessions. That said, most of the earlier songs were possibly reworked and recut and definitely overdubbed during the Hit Factory sessions.

** Bowie found the song’s title in the French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (recall that Duncan Jones was getting a philosophy doctorate at the time, although Deleuze and Guattari were catnip for Bowie, who likely got a kick from lines like: a rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.) The paragraph Bowie took his title from could have been a manifesto for Outside: This is how it should be done: Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of land at all times.

Top: Ted Barron, “Untitled,” 1994. (As I’ve written before, Ted is a friend and a fine photographer).