Remembering Marie A.

October 4, 2011

Erinnerung an die Marie A. (Ernst Busch.)
Erinnerung an die Marie A. (Ulrich Mühe)
Remembering Marie A. (Bowie, broadcast).
Remembering Marie A. (Bowie, studio).

Brecht wrote a poem he called “Sentimental Song No. 1004” on a train to Berlin in February 1920. Allegedly written for Marie Rosa Amann, an Augsburg girl that Brecht had met in an ice-cream parlor (she later allegedly said Brecht was the first boy to ever kiss her), “Song,” later retitled “Erinnerung an die Marie A.,“* was based on a sentimental popular hit of the era, a French song called “Tu ne m’amais pas” that Brecht knew in its German version, “Verlorenes Glück.”

“Marie A.” was something of a” hit single” for Brecht as well. He sang it, accompanied by his own guitar, several times in public in the early Twenties. After being published in 1924, the poem was sung in several stage productions and recorded by Kate Kühl in 1928, and, a few years later, by Ernst Busch. While not written or intended for Baal, the song, being quite popular, was sometimes used in productions of it, including one of Baal‘s earliest 1926 performances.

In the BBC’s revival of Baal, “Marie A.” was substituted for Baal’s coarse ode to sitting on the toilet (“a place that teaches you, so Orge sings/be humble, for you can’t hold on to things“). The setting is Baal’s favorite tavern, during an evening when he’s humiliating Emily, the society woman he’s recently seduced, while beginning his offensive on his next target, the virgin Johanna. The toilet song is used as a further debasement of Emily, but swapping “Marie A.” in its place changes the mood, suspending the sordid atmosphere for a moment.

“Marie A.” is a quietly anti-romantic piece. The narrator begins by recalling a splendid late summer day in his youth that he spent with a long-departed love. But as the three-stanza verse proceeds, the memory fades: he claims that the girl means nothing to him now, nor ever did; he can’t remember what it was like to kiss her, or what her face looked like, or her last name. Instead, all that he really remembers is a cloud that he had spied for a moment, dissipating in the air as he watched it pass on that lost afternoon—a cloud that, vanishing just as it was born, has come to stand in his mind for everything he’s forgotten, everything since destroyed or worn-out (the wood’s been chopped down, Marie A. is likely now on her seventh child).

For the BBC Baal, Dominic Muldowney again took as a start Brecht and Franz Bruinier’s original music for “Marie A.,” which used a soaring, romantic melody that the cold, disillusioned lyric seemed to mock—the vocal is a series of steady but aborted climbs that finally reach the top at the climax of each verse (on a high D, e.g. “it was quite WHITE”). I prefer the broadcast performance of “Marie A.” to the studio remake, as Bowie’s in wonderful voice for the former (even the odd garbled note on the final “moments” gives it character); his more genteel performance in the studio take seems weighed down by comparison.

Baal was taped on 8-12 August 1981, BBC Television Centre; shown on BBC1, 2 February 1982. Studio version recorded in September 1981 at Hansa, Berlin; EP released 13 February 1982.

* When spoken (in German) “Marie A.” sounds like “Maria,” the Virgin Mary. It’s likely Brecht did that intentionally. He was fond of “Marie” (as the name “spanned the distance between housemaids and Saint Mary”), using it in several poems. (From Hugo Schmidt’s notes on Brecht’s Manual of Piety.)

Top: Clare Grogan, 1981.


Baal’s Hymn

September 30, 2011

Baal’s Hymn (broadcast).
Baal’s Hymn (studio).

Before he was a playwright, director, theorist or general undesirable (having to flee both Nazi Germany and the McCarthy-era USA), Bertolt Brecht was a poet, one whose works were meant to be sung to guitar. Brecht was inspired by performers he had seen in his native Bavaria, like Karl Valentin, a clown who was Germany’s answer to Charlie Chaplin, and Joachim Ringelnatz, a sailor/minesweeper turned poet and cabaret performer. Brecht’s poems were to be chanted or sung; they are often a kind of plainsong, as his future interpreter David Bowie once noted.

While Brecht drew on classic German literature and narrative ballads, he favored mass-produced pop culture more than the “approved” folk music praised by the German middle class. Following unification in the 1870s, there was a vogue for Germanic folklore and mythology (this didn’t end well). For Brecht, much of this Volkslieder was fossil-music which had nothing to offer the working class of, say, 1915 Munich. As Brecht later wrote, working people have no wish to be Folk. Many of Brecht’s early poems were set to melodies of trashy pop songs, while in the Twenties, Brecht’s discovery of jazz (a new sordid American import, later restricted by the Nazis) would lead to works like Threepenny Opera.

Baal, Brecht’s first play, is the culmination of his early work, the fruit of his youth in Augsburg, where Brecht was known for walking around town and in the woods, writing on scraps of paper that he kept in his pockets: the result was “the single, self-consistent poem whose stage expression was Baal “(John Willett). For Baal, Brecht recycled poems as dramatic interludes, in-scene performances or monologues in song (some, like the cruel “Legend of the Harlot Evelyn Roe,” were cut from the play upon revisions, while other poems would be swapped in and out, depending on the director’s choice (as we’ll see with “Remembering Marie A.”).

Written in 1918 and revised eight years later, Baal is an episodic portrait of a “a man stripped of character…[an] asocial man.” (Eric Bentley). Baal is a drunk, poet, moocher, singer, guitarist, seducer, murderer and general agent of chaos, but he’s not a “natural” man either. He’s not a feral beast unable to fit into modern society, but a modernist who clearly sees “the amorality of nature all around us, but beholds it from a distance, and with longing and envy.” (Brecht said his Baal was modeled on one “Josef K,” a washerwoman’s bastard who charmed society figures, seduced many women (leading one to kill herself) and finally died while living in the Black Forest.)

In 1981, Bowie starred in a BBC revival of Baal and as his parting gift to RCA, he recorded five Baal songs for an EP (it’s a kiss-off to a label Bowie had grown to hate: “you thought Low was too uncommercial? Good luck selling this one“). Baal is often considered a strange cul-de-sac in Bowie’s career, a time-filling ploy while Bowie was waiting out his contracts. Only two of Bowie’s many biographies give Baal more than scant mention.* But Baal, after Scary Monsters, is Bowie’s best record of the decade; it’s another farewell to the performer he once was (for Bowie, the early Eighties was a series of strategic retreats, of closing down outposts) and a glimpse of the artist he could have been.

In early 1981, the director Alan Clarke (best known for the vicious prison drama Scum) proposed reviving Baal for the BBC. Working with the producer Louis Marks,** Clarke planned to use split-screen to convey the Brechtian dramatic technique of characters addressing the audience during the play. Looking for a lead actor, Clarke and Marks recalled Bowie’s recent success in The Elephant Man and correctly guessed that he had some interest in Weimar Germany; after visiting him in Switzerland, they offered him the role, for which he received the standard BBC scale of £1,000.

During rehearsals, Marks and John Willett (who wrote the script, a fine, sharp translation) were stunned to find that the rock star they had recruited knew as much about Brecht and Weimar Germany as they did (and Willett had just finished assembling Brecht’s poems in their definitive compilation). His years of isolation in Los Angeles, with Bowie obsessively reading whatever he could find on Weimar, and his immersion in Berlin in 1976-77 had turned Bowie into an amateur scholar.

Sure, Baal was a way for Bowie to keep busy during a deliberate period of slack, but it’s too well-chosen a role for just that. Baal is a prototype rock star, a Weimar-era Ziggy, marked by his callousness, charisma and all-consuming need to devour all he sees, from the women that he tumbles into bed to the clouds that he spies in the forest sky. Portrayed by Bowie as a shabby East End bohemian, Baal seems like one last incarnation of a greedy, world-shattering youth, one marked, as Bowie’s had been, by a cold observant eye to match a ravenous appetite. It’s the angry, self-righteous, devouring voice of “Cygnet Committee,” heard again but now encased in a stage performance, preserved as a keepsake.

“Hymn of Baal the Great” (also translated as “Chorale of the Great Baal”) is Baal‘s 14-stanza prologue, although, as Clarke chose, the poem is often broken up in performance, its stanzas distributed throughout the play to serve as between-scenes commentary. (In Clarke’s production, the first three stanzas are the prologue, a compressed fourth and fifth stanza comes after the scene of Baal’s introduction, etc.)

Dominic Muldowney wrote music for it, using as the melody an uncredited piece included in Brecht’s 1927 Die Hauspostille: an 8-bar refrain in G major whose vocal melody rises in thirds for each line (the singer first keeps on E, then G, then B, culminating in the octave E on “MARV-eh-lous“). The BBC performance of “Baal’s Hymn” is just Bowie and banjo, serving as a needling, harsh commentary on the performances or intertitles flashing by in the right-hand frame of the split-screen. For complete version of the “Hymn” that Bowie recorded in Berlin a month later, Muldowney and Bowie had to rethink the song as a unified performance.

Bowie had convened Willett, Muldowney, Tony Visconti and Edu Meyer to record the Baal songs at Hansa Studios in Berlin in September 1981. Visconti said Bowie described the session as being a “souvenir,” merely recording the songs for posterity. The Baal session was also another farewell: it would be the last Visconti Bowie production for nearly 20 years, and the last time Bowie ever recorded in Berlin.

Muldowney scored the Baal songs for a 15-person band of Berlin musicians (mainly one musician per instrument (violin, viola, trombone, trumpet, cello, etc.), so to get a “German pit orchestra” sound, Visconti said), including the percussionist Sherry Bertram and “a 75-year-old bandoneónist who’d played in the first productions of the Threepenny Opera” (Trynka), Muldowney was startled to hear what Visconti was doing to the mix, compressing and flanging the recorded instruments, so that “four strings sounded like four tanks,” he told Trynka.

Bowie had wanted to sing live with the band, but he had showed up late to the session and, as these were German union musicians, the session needed to start and end on time. Bowie was happy to be tardy, as listening to the musicians gave him a chance to “mentally rehearse” his vocals, Visconti said.

The studio “Hymn” uses Bowie’s voice in the way a jazz ensemble would a lead saxophone—sometimes working in support of the group, sometimes as a wild soloist. The opening three stanzas are similar to the BBC production, with Bowie, using a very free meter that lets him extend or shorten lines as he sees fit, at first set only against piano, with the full band coming in as the verses go on. A brief interlude, then a second phase, with Bowie now singing in a march-like fixed meter, chained to the rhythms of the piece. A second interlude triggers the return of the initial free-ranging performance, with Bowie let off the leash again (listen to how he bites into “nothinggg could be HARD-er than the QUest for FUN“). After another interlude, Bowie is conscripted again, but he resists more now, capping off one verse with a gleeful “vulture SOUP!”. And the Hymn ends with Bowie free but bloodied, offering one final burst of defiance with the long-held “marvelous!” before he expires.

For Bowie’s vocal, Visconti and Meyer used the “Heroes” strategy of having several mikes placed around Hansa’s enormous Meistersaal, to capture Bowie’s voice at different levels and imbued with room ambiance. Bowie cut all of his vocals for the EP in a few hours. Then he took Muldowney on a guided tour of Berlin low-life, including transvestite bars and New Wave clubs; it was a night out with a Baal who had reached a comfortable middle age.

Baal was taped on 8-12 August 1981, BBC Television Centre, and was shown on BBC1 on 2 February 1982.*** The studio take of “Baal’s Hymn” was recorded in September 1981 at Hansa on the Wall, Berlin; released on 13 February 1982 on the EP David Bowie in Bertolt Brecht’s Baal (RCA BOW 11, #29 UK). “Baal’s Hymn” was later collected on the revised Sound + Vision.

(Baal‘s amazing UK chart placing—#29 on the singles chart for an EP of obscure Brecht—is a testament to British taste or devoted Bowie fandom; hats off in either case. There’s a wonderful unsourced anecdote from Wikipedia: “the EP was released as a 12″ which gained it some play in clubs.” Ah, the delight on the dance floor when some perverse DJ put on “Baal’s Hymn”…)

* Trynka’s new bio is excellent on Baal, and George Tremlett devoted some space to it. By contrast, Edwards/Zanetta, Sandford, Spitz and Buckley all dispatch Baal in a paragraph (Buckley calling Baal a “minor work,” too.)

** Marks, who died last year, was a BBC stalwart, even writing four Doctor Who scripts.

*** Unfortunately only the first 30 minutes (from someone’s off-air videotape) have turned up on Youtube. Why the BBC has never released Baal on either VHS or DVD at some point in the past 30 years is baffling; maybe it’s a rights issue (Brecht’s early poems are public domain, but not Baal). A complete version of the off-air tape is circulating, though the picture/sound is pretty dismal.

Top: Bowie as Baal, video and vinyl, respectively.


Young Americans

October 12, 2010

Young American (take 3, fragment).
Young Americans.
Young Americans (live, 1974).
Young Americans (The Dick Cavett Show, 1974).
Young Americans (live, 1983).
Young Americans (live, 1987).
Young Americans (live, 1990).

Americans love flattery and youth, so it’s no surprise that David Bowie finally cracked the US Top 40 with this song. Bowie always performed it on stage with an acoustic guitar, making the song seem like a remnant of his folkie days, and eventually “Young Americans” was tumbled in with other congratulatory good-time songs of its era. Yet “Young Americans” is a cold piece of work, a ballad that becomes a diatribe, its bite kissed away by Bowie’s American backing singers.

Asked by the NME in summer 1975 about the song, Bowie said: “No story. Just young Americans. It’s about a newly-wed couple who don’t know if they really like each other. Well, they do, but they don’t know if they do or don’t.” (cf. Sly Stone’s “Family Affair”: “Newly-wed a year ago, but you’re still checkin’ each other out.”) In the opening verses, a young, bewildered couple finds solace in sex (though not much: it took him minutes, took her nowhere) and eventually squander all they have going for them, their youth. At least that’s what the final line of the third, shortened verse suggests: We live for just these twenty years, do we have to die for the fifty more?

Bowie was covering Bruce Springsteen songs (he’d cut “It’s Hard to Be a Saint in the City” in a later Young Americans session), so “Young Americans” conceivably started as a tribute or a rip of something off The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle. But Springsteen was in love with his characters, making myths of their meager lives, and even his walk-on roles have pathos, like Madame Marie in “4th of July, Asbury Park.” In “Young Americans,” the boy and the girl lack names, jobs, desires, histories, friends. They’re not even types. Vocal uncertainty (does Bowie sing “they pulled in just behind the bridge” or “behind the fridge” in the first line?) makes even the song’s setting unknowable: the story could open in the backseat of a car, or in some squalid apartment. It doesn’t matter.

The boy and girl move in jump cuts, speak in stilted language, as if they’re hostages reading from a script. It’s just poster love, as Bowie sings later in the song. “Am I still too young?” the girl asks. “Where have all papa’s heroes gone?” she says later. He’s referred to as “her bread-winner.” She’s no more than a talking Barbie doll (her heart’s been broken, just like you have). Even the chorus reads like Maoist agitprop: She wants the young American! I want the young American!

And after the bridge and saxophone break, Bowie knocks his pieces off the board. Instead of continuing his story, he uses his last two verses to riff, offering quips, shorthand, signifiers. In “Life On Mars?” Bowie began with a close-up on the mousy girl in the movie theater stalls, then zoomed out for a wider, more surreal picture, but “Young Americans” begins far away from its subjects. Their fates aren’t important, because the boy and girl didn’t exist in the first place. They were just mere impressions, as ephemeral as the other fleeting images that the singer sees as he watches a country spool past his limousine window: Ford Mustangs, Americans on buses, Caddys, Chryslers. Americans blacklisted, those just back from Washington, whites on Soul Train. Americans using Afro-Sheen, Americans contemplating suicide, carrying razors in their briefcases.

In Serge Gainsbourg’s “Ford Mustang,” from 1968, Gainsbourg and his co-singer whisper and chant to each other American ad slogans, catch phrases and comic book dialogue: Pickup! Keep cool! Fluid makeup! Coca Cola! Ford Mus-tang! But it wasn’t just parody, as Gainsbourg was playing off the hipness and vitality American imagery still had in mid-’60s Europe. In “Young Americans,” that power is gone, long dissipated. Bowie is a tourist who came in the off season, and he leaves with a curse. Leather, leather everywhere and not a myth left from the ghetto.

Richard Nixon’s sudden appearance in the song’s bridge (a line that Bowie would update on stage to Reagan or Bush the Elder) is partly just a contemporary note, as Bowie cut “Young Americans” a week after Nixon’s resignation. Yet it’s also another dismissal, with Bowie accurately predicting that the downfall and disgrace of Richard Nixon, the grand finale of The Sixties, would soon enough be reduced to history, to be fought over by partisans and barely remembered by the masses. (The Clash offered a similar barb in “White Man In Hammersmith Palais” a few years later: “If Adolf Hitler flew in today/they’d send a limousine anyway”) .

As the song closes down, other ghosts appear. The chorus, out of nowhere, sings the opening line of the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” in the final verse, a further alienation (the song reminding us it’s just another song, and a lesser one at that). John Lennon originally sang the line as a beautiful, floating reverie, though he was noting how the media turns tragedy into wallpaper, how a crowd watching a car crash only considers it in terms of the victim’s possible celebrity. “Young Americans” views an entire world this way, a flattening of perception.

And then Bowie’s final costume change, a last irony: before the end chorus, Bowie moves to free time and sings, suddenly all alone, “Ain’t there one damn song that can make me…break down and cry?,” the last four words a jolt up to a high D, then a slight descent to a run of high A notes. Bowie’s become Johnnie Ray, who, as Dexy’s Midnight Runners sang, once broke a million hearts in mono. Bowie, interpreting black music, crafting it with primarily black musicians, channels Ray, who he turns into an earlier, flawed incarnation. Ray, a white boy from Oregon, was first taken up by patrons of a black club in Detroit and later signed to Columbia’s “race” label, OKeh: his singles topped the R&B charts. Ray didn’t imitate black singers as much as he did wild, fevered interpretations of them, fueling his art with his own tortured experience (he had a punctured eardrum, was a closeted bisexual); Ray burned out quickly but lingered for decades, dying in Los Angeles in 1990.

Lester Bangs, watching a Bowie performance in Detroit in 1974, picked up on the parallel: I peered and peered, trying to catch the ultimate vibe…Johnny Ray. Johnny Ray on cocaine singing about 1984. The audacity of it all made Bangs tip his hat. Don’t be fooled: Bowie is as cold as ever, and if you get off on his particular brand of lunar antibody you may well be disappointed in his latest incarnation, because he’s doubling back on himself.

So is “Young Americans,” at its cold heart, Bowie reflecting himself, making a mirror play of his own preoccupations, disgusts, betrayals? And yet he did so in a song that American audiences loved, one they took to be a communal tribute, a gift left by a party guest. As the years went on, Bowie accepted this: at the height of his ’80s fame, he sang “Young Americans” on stage as if he was covering Springsteen, asking the crowd to sing his Johnny Ray line back to him. “Young Americans” is a guide to a foreign country by a man who never left his house, one beloved by those he never really visited.

Of course “Young Americans” is also good-time music, founded on a steady groove, sweetened by David Sanborn’s alto saxophone obbligato and blessed with a vocal hook, a bar-long exaltation so compelling that all of Bowie’s bile and alienation seem to melt away whenever the chorus sings.

The hook was mainly Luther Vandross’ doing. Vandross, listening to studio rehearsals of “Young Americans,” said to his friend, the singer Robin Clark, ‘what if there was a phrase that went ‘young Americans, young Americans, he was the young American—all right!’ Now when ‘all right’ comes up, jump over me and go into harmony,” Vandross told Musician in 1987. Bowie overheard Clark and Vandross singing this, and, intrigued, brought them into the session. Soon enough, Bowie had reworked the chorus to include the hook.

“Young Americans” is built out of standard materials, its verses moving from the home key, C, up to the dominant, G, in 4-bar repeats, and after the bridge and sax/guitar breaks, there’s a key change up to D, which parallels Bowie discarding his characters in favor of his rolling impressions. The groove slides through most of the song, built on Andy Newmark’s drums, Willie Weeks’ bass (mainly playing repeating two-note patterns) and a running duet between Carlos Alomar’s rhythm guitar and Mike Garson’s piano. Garson had tried to get the taste of more avant-garde material like “Aladdin Sane” out of his playing, establishing a groove “that had a bit of a Latin feel, without going over the top into salsa music,” he told David Buckley.

If the groove feels slightly restrained (Garson’s piano doesn’t swing that much), and while Sanborn later said that his sax playing was under par, calling “a bit repetitive,” any drawbacks are erased by the sense of narrative motion. The verses are quickly answered by choruses, the choruses are broken up by first a 4-bar sax/piano break, the “Nixon” bridge and another 4-bar break dominated by Alomar’s guitar. Bowie’s singing is also a marvel, zipping up to falsetto and, in his final verses, Bowie reels out strings of language, like someone possessed by prophecy (each bar seems to fill up with more sung notes: 11 in “you ain’t a pimp and you ain’t a hustler, a”, 13 in “pimp’s got a Caddy and a lady’s got a Chrysler,” to the point you expect Bowie to finally shatter the song’s sense of rhythm).

Recorded 11-13 August 1974* and released in February 1975 as a single c/w “Suffragette City” (RCA 2523, #18 UK, #28 US) and a month later as the lead-off track of the album it titled. First performed on stage in Los Angeles on 2 September 1974, with the Dick Cavett Show performance taped on 2 November. While a staple of Bowie’s 1980s tours, Bowie hasn’t played “Young Americans” in over 20 years.

Top: William Eggleston, “Two Girls on a Couch,” 1974. A few years later the women [in this photo] sang in a Memphis punk band called Gangrene and the Scurvy Girls.”

* “Young Americans,” according to Tony Visconti’s autobiography and researchers like Nicholas Pegg, was said to be the first track completed at the Sigma Sound sessions, finished on the first night, 11 August 1974. But the newly-surfaced “Shilling the Rubes” reel contains what almost certainly sounds like an earlier take of “Young Americans,” recorded on 13 August (Newmark’s drum intro isn’t quite there yet, for instance).