The Bewlay Brothers

April 9, 2010

The Bewlay Brothers.
The Bewlay Brothers (broadcast, 2002).

The only pipe I have ever smoked was a cheap Bewlay. It was a common item in the late Sixties and for this song I used Bewlay as a cognomen in place of my own. This wasn’t just a song about brotherhood so I didn’t want to misrepresent it by using my true name. Having said that, I wouldn’t know how to interpret the lyric of this song other than suggesting that there are layers of ghosts within it. It’s a palimpsest, then.

David Bowie, 2008.

“The Bewlay Brothers” was one of the last songs cut for Hunky Dory and the only song of the lot Bowie wrote in the studio (he had demoed the rest of the tracks, often months before the LP sessions). Decades later, Bowie described the song’s creation as being impulsive, almost emetic: “I had a whole wad of words that I had been writing all day. I had felt distanced and unsteady all evening, something settling in my mind.” He recorded the song after the rest of the band had gone home (though obviously there were overdubs later), and then went out drinking at “the Sombrero in Kensington High Street or possibly Wardour Street’s crumbling La Chasse.”

Bowie called it a song for the American market. Asked why by his producer, Bowie said that as Americans loved over-analyzing records, finding clues on LP sleeves and in throwaway phrases, he wrote a song to baffle them. He was dismissive of “Bewlay Brothers” at first, describing it as “Star Trek in a leather jacket,” calling his own lyric incomprehensible. In retrospect it seems like Bowie was deliberately evasive, trying to dilute the song’s power, keeping his audience from getting too close to it.

Biographers have offered definitive interpretations of the lyric, mainly focusing on Bowie’s schizophrenic half-brother, Terry. (Christopher Sandford: “The song, in fact, dealt with the schizophrenic Terry Burns,” while George Tremlett went further, specifying that the song was about a seance Terry and Bowie held in the ’60s). Certainly the ill-fated Burns (who Bowie would soon effectively disown, cutting off all contact with him) is at the heart of the song, as lines like “My brother lays upon the rocks/he could be dead, he could be not…” or “we’d frighten the small children away” suggest the times when Burns would have seizures on the street, writhing on the pavement while his step-brother watched him, helpless. But mere autobiography is too narrow a lens—the Bewlay Brothers could as well be gay hustlers, or daemons, or the two sides of a fractured personality. (Bowie, interviewed in 2000: “I was never quite sure what real position Terry had in my life, whether Terry was a real person or whether I was actually referring to another part of me.”)

The truth, if there’s any truth to be found, will never be disclosed: it’s buried somewhere within Bowie’s masterful song, which offers as recompense shards of imagery, passwords whispered in dreams, titles of lost paintings: “stalking time for the Moonboys”; “the grim face on the cathedral floor”; “the whale of a lie like the hope it was”; “kings of oblivion”; “they bought their positions with saccharin and trust”; “the crust of the sun”. The weary loss felt in a line like “And the solid book we wrote/cannot be found today.”

Lester Bangs: “I saw Bowie the other night.”

Lou Reed: “Lucky you. I think it’s very sad.”

LB: “He ripped off all your riffs, obviously.”

LR: “Everybody steals riffs. You steal yours. David wrote some really great songs.”

LB: “Aw c’mon. Anybody can write great songs! Sam the Sham wrote great songs! Did David write anything better than ‘Wooly Bully’?

LR: “You ever listen to ‘The Bewlay Brothers,’ shithead?”

“Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves,” Creem, March 1975.

“Bewlay Brothers,” after a somber intro of acoustic guitar and distorted piano, consists of three long verses whose last 14 bars also serve as choruses (a structure similar to earlier songs like “Cygnet Committee”); the verses are separated by four-bar guitar breaks, and are finished off by the bizarre coda sung by a vari-speeded choir of grotesques, the return of the Laughing Gnomes as specters.

Consider the track a series of doubles—the song begins in two dueling keys, modulating from D to E minor and back again; Bowie’s voice is echoed on occasional lines; the piano and Mick Ronson’s guitar are so distorted at times they could substitute for each other; Bowie builds the first lines of each verse out of paired one-syllable beats (i.e.,SO it GOES/we WORE the CLOTHES/they SAID the THINGS/that MADE it SEEM, etc.); the two guitar breaks pit the musings of Ronson’s elegant lead guitar against the regular strums of Bowie’s acoustic. And the coda shifts between B minor and F, chords not fit for each other (if B minor is the key, then it should be F-sharp, or if it’s F, it should be B-flat): it’s an irreconcilable pairing, much like the Brothers themselves.

Recorded ca. July-August 1971. An alternate mix (hardly different from the LP cut: the voices are just mixed louder in the coda) appeared on the Ryko CD reissue of Hunky Dory. Bowie never played the song live until 2002, when he recorded a version for BBC radio, joking that the lyric had more words than War and Peace. He spoke like a man who wouldn’t recognize his younger self if he passed it on the street.

Top: Peter Brook’s King Lear, 1971.