Ballad of the Adventurers

October 13, 2011

Ballad of the Adventurers (Baal EP).

I’m not a rat. It must be lighter out there. My dear Baal, you’ll get to the door. You still have knees. It’s better in the doorway…

Brecht, Baal (his last words).

“Ballad of the Adventurers” is Baal’s last will and testament. After years of living out in the woods, he and his friend Ekart return to civilization, only to find that the bars have grown filthier and everyone’s grown older, shabbier and drunker. But Baal’s older and more pathetic as well (“nothing’s changed here…only you, it seems, have grown more refined,” a barfly sneers at him).

Asked for a song, Baal offers a final tribute to those “who were flung out alike from heaven and from Hades” (like the cursed harlot Evelyn Roe, of Brecht’s early poem). Regretting ever having left the womb, they wander across “absinthe-green oceans,” solacing their tortured minds with the image of a little meadow with “blue sky overhead and nothing else.” The adventurers of Baal’s song are the last bohemians, tearing through their short, appalling lives, hungry for sensation, settling for violence.

Ekart paws at a barmaid while he baits Baal (“why shouldn’t I have women? Am I your lover?“) until Baal, enraged, stabs him to death. Baal flees town for the last time, heading north, “following the underside of the leaves.” Sick and weary, he winds up in a logger’s camp, where the loggers jeer his impending death; one even spits on his face. Baal dies as he had lived: in mockery, curses and rebellion. His last act is to haul himself outside, so he can expire in the open air. “Stars—hmm,” he mutters as he crawls.

The least melodic of the Baal songs, “Adventurers,” far more than the rest of the EP, sounds like an exercise, an overly ambitious attempt to do an art song. Still, could Baal have been a beginning, rather than a footnote?

As a goof, I once wrote an alternate Bowie history (“Love You Till Tuesday”) in which Bowie’s jaunty, irritating pop singles of the mid-Sixties were smash hits, setting him off on a life much like Englebert Humperdinck’s. So what could Bowie’s Eighties have been, had Baal been an initial foray into, for lack of a better term, the commercial avant-garde? Bowie collaborations with Robert Wilson, Philip Glass, Glenn Branca, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Laurie Anderson or John Zorn? A run of art-rock soundscape records like Tom Waits’ midEighties trilogy? Minimalist synthesizer instrumentals? Bowie scoring Jarmusch or Wenders films, producing Sonic Youth?

Some of Bowie’s moves in the Nineties hint at this sort of revision: it’s as though Bowie beat his way back to the fork and peered down the other path, wondering where it could have led him. But he wouldn’t have been “David Bowie” had he gone the other way. The David Bowie of Let’s Dance is also the world’s Bowie; in a way, his vast commercial success became his final, most enduring incarnation. So Baal remains forgotten; it’s just a trace of a world in which Bowie was a lesser, if greater figure.

A Prologue on Money and Ambition

In 1982, Bowie was looking for a new record deal. His current label RCA was battered: it had lost $14.5 million in 1981 alone, with its bet on manufacturing videodiscs proving, with the advent of VCRs, to be a disaster. For its record label, RCA’s main pop acts remained Elvis Presley (unfortunately dead since 1977) and Bowie (who, in RCA’s eyes, was in much the same condition). In a few years, RCA would be eaten up by General Electric.

So RCA, in its last days as a stand-alone company, had neither the desire nor the capital to humor an artist who was their Bob Dylan: great press, great prestige, mediocre to poor sales. With his contract up, Bowie now wanted Michael Jackson-level, Fleetwood Mac-level money, but his past performance was nowhere in their range. As of June 1983, Bowie’s total global album sales were as follows (according to Zanetta/Edwards’ Stardust, figures rounded up/down):

Three top sellers: Ziggy Stardust (1.38 million units moved), ChangesOneBowie (1.33 million), Young Americans (923,000). A few gold records: Diamond Dogs (745,000), David Live (598,000), Station to Station (552,800), Aladdin Sane (533,000); a few mid-list sellers: Space Oddity (455,600), Hunky Dory (445,600), Pin Ups (421,250), Scary Monsters (347,400). With the “Berlin” records, a complete cratering: “Heroes” (279,000), Low (265,900), Lodger (153,360), Stage (127,350). Between 1977 and 1983, one of every two new Bowie LPs was returned unsold by retailers. By contrast, Michael Jackson sold over a million copies of Off the Wall between August and December 1979 alone.

Finally free from having to pay his former manager mechanical royalties, and feeling unappreciated and (relatively) underpaid by RCA, Bowie wanted, essentially, to cash in at last. So he needed an album that, when shopped around, would get a label excited enough to provide his payday. According to George Tremlett, Bowie first had his staff write profiles of all of the major labels, “detailing their commercial strengths and weaknesses, their key personnel and their willingness to invest in promotion” (the latter a key point for Bowie, who felt RCA had bungled the promotion of his Berlin albums.) He finally targeted EMI, aiming for a 3-LP deal reportedly worth $17 million ($36 million, inflation-adjusted).

In late 1982, Nile Rodgers flew to Switzerland to stay at Bowie’s house in Lausanne. The two had recently met and Rodgers had agreed to produce Bowie’s next record. Bowie sat down with his 12-string acoustic guitar (Rodgers recalled being baffled that Bowie only had six strings on it, though) and ran through a batch of new songs: they were mainly sketches, sometimes just chords, top melodies, a few choruses. Before he started to play one song, Bowie told Rodgers he thought this was the hit. It was a folky piece that reminded Rodgers of the Byrds. “I was like, ‘that’s not happening, man,”” Rodgers recalled to Paul Trynka. “It totally threw me. It was not a song you could dance to.”…

Top: Don Hudson, “Detroit, MI 1981.”

The Drowned Girl

October 11, 2011

Ballade vom Ertrunkenen Mädchen (Lotte Lenya, 1957).
Ballade vom Ertrunkenen Mädchen (Gisela May, 1969).
The Drowned Girl.

The cabaret performer Carl Zuckmayer once saw Brecht at a party in Munich in late 1923. When Brecht reached for his guitar, conversations died, the tango dancers stopped and “everyone sat on the floor around him caught up in his spell,” he said. With a “raw and cutting” voice, while clasping his guitar against his stomach as though using it to stanch a wound, Brecht sang “Remembering Marie A.,” the vicious “Ballad of the Pirates” and his harrowing “Ballad of the Drowned Girl.” Zuckmayer said he felt hypnotized, his mind reeling in the performance’s wake. By now Brecht “had become an almost totally irresistible seductive force,” John Fuegi wrote. “He could now usually impose his will on virtually anybody.”

“Drowned Girl” had become one of Brecht’s most potent setpieces. It was inspired by the murder of the Marxist revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg in the suppression of the Spartacist Uprising in Berlin in January 1919 (Brecht had originally titled the poem “On the Girl Beaten to Death”—Luxemburg had been clubbed and shot by Freikorps soldiers, her body hurled into the Landwehr Canal). But Brecht’s poem isn’t any sort of keep-the-faith revolutionary epitaph or a maudlin lament. With the same asperity and coldness as his “Marie A.” (it’s also referencing the drowning of Ophelia in Hamlet), Brecht instead lovingly details the slow decomposition of the girl’s body as she floats down the river, her body growing weighed down with seaweed, small fish eating pieces of her flesh until she’s reached such a state that “God forgets her.”

Brecht later recycled “Drowned Girl” into Baal; Baal sings it while tramping in the forest. At this point in the play (Scene 15), a girl who Baal seduced has killed herself, and “Drowned Girl” is Baal’s eerie tribute to her, taking a cold delight in the business of death and a satisfaction in being able to turn the latest corpse into a workable song. It was set to music by Kurt Weill in 1928 for Berliner Requiem, a cantata for chorus and orchestra, whose aim was to express what “the urban man of our era has to say about the phenomenon of death,” Weill wrote.

For Bowie’s Baal, he and Dominic Muldowney kept Weill’s music for “Drowned Girl.” Muldowney was struck by Bowie’s nearly improvised yet masterful technique (inspired by Lotte Lenya’s performance), from the opening verses where Bowie, at times singing staccato, keeps low in his baritone range as the girl’s body slowly moves, slowly grows heavier and heavier (Brecht once had instructed these lines to be whispered) to how Bowie disperses the haziness of “when the sky that same evening grew dark as smoke” with the sharply-sung “k” in “smoke,” which kicks off a climb up the octave (a very Sinatra-esque move). One of Bowie’s finest vocals of the era.

*Lotte Lenya sang her version of “Drowned Girl” to Brecht shortly before the latter died in 1955. She wondered if her performance had suited his idea of epic theater, to which Brecht replied: “Lenya, you are always epic enough for me.”

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 on the Wall, Berlin; EP released 13 February 1982. Amazingly RCA requested a video for “Drowned Girl.” Shot by David Mallett, it has a cast of ringers in the supporting band, including Tony Visconti (on guitar), the Simple Minds’ drummer Mel Gaynor and Bowie’s legendary majordomo Coco Schwab as one of the wind players.

Top: George and Poppy Plemper, “Unknown Girls 1 &2, Woolwich Dockyard, 1981.”

Dirty Song

October 5, 2011

Dirty Song.

Written with his friend Ludwig “Lud” Prestel, Brecht’s poem, known variously as “Baal’s Song,” “Dirty Song” or just the opening line “If a Woman’s Hips Are Ample,” dates to July 1918 and was included in the first version of Baal. It’s in Scene 7, in which Baal has been reduced, like a fading rock star, to performing as a burlesque of his former self at a seedy club called the Night Cloud. He haggles over his “contractual brandy” rations, sings dirty ballads (while dressed in tails and a child’s sailor hat) to a drunken audience. He finally flees into the latrine with his guitar, crawls out through the window and runs off into the woods.

“Dirty Song,” described by John Willett as Baal’s “last disgusting gesture,” is the shortest Bowie song since “Don’t Sit Down;” with its “stage Cockney” vocal and woodwind/horn arrangement, it could’ve been an outtake from Bowie’s debut album. Three quick, nasty verses and it’s over with a plop.

Baal was taped on 8-12 August 1981, BBC Television Centre (unfortunately there’s no accessible footage of “Dirty Song” and the other two remaining songs); shown on BBC1, 2 February 1982. Studio version recorded in September 1981 at Hansa on the Wall, Berlin; EP released 13 February 1982.

Top: Augusto Braidotti, “Heidelbergerstrasse,” 1981.

Alabama Song

June 6, 2011

Alabama Song (Lotte Lenya, 1962).
Alabama Song (The Doors, 1967).
Alabama Song (Bowie, live, 1978).
Alabama Song (soundcheck, 1978).
Alabama Song (broadcast, 1978).
Alabama Song (single, 1980).
Alabama Song (live, 1990).
Alabama Song (live, 2002).

Here in Mahagonny, life is lovely.

Scene title in Mahagonny-Songspiel, 1927.

Bertolt Brecht wrote “Alabama Song” around 1925. With its stilted English lyric (likely by his regular collaborator, Elisabeth Hauptmann, as Brecht’s English was never good) and a crabbed melody meant for Brecht’s flint box of a voice, it was more a poem than it was a future standard. Kurt Weill, upon reading the original score, said “Alabama” was “nothing more than a notation of [Brecht’s] speech-rhythm and completely useless as music.” So Weill, once he began working with Brecht, set about turning “Alabama Song” into music. For instance, Brecht originally had compressed the start of the refrain, “O moon of Alabama,” into 1 1/2 bars—Weill extended the line over five bars, making “O” a whole note, having “Alabama” descend an octave. One of their first collaborations, the revised “Alabama Song” embodied the Brecht/Weill partnership, with Brecht’s depiction of man as a scavenging animal undermining, and being exalted by, Weill’s beauties.

“Alabama Song” first appeared in Brecht/Weill’s Mahoganny Songspiel (1927) and its operatic reworking three years later, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahoganny. It was sung by a prostitute and her gang, leaving one town, heading for the fabled city of Mahoganny (essentially the ur-Las Vegas). “Alabama Song” was an anthem of the dissolute, a cry for base pleasures “performed by a priestess in the cult of money” (Daniel Albright). Lotte Lenya immortalized it, as she would other Brecht/Weill songs (a version here from 1962). When Lenya first sang “Alabama Song” for Brecht, he “listened with that deep courtesy and patience that I was to learn never failed him with women and actors,” Lenya recalled. “‘Not so Egyptian,’ he said, turning my palms upward, extending my arms…

Once the Nazis took power, Mahoganny and all other Brecht/Weill productions were banned from performance; by the early 1940s, Brecht, Weill and Lenya were all exiled in America. In the postwar years, Mahoganny was admired more than it was performed, never achieving the renown of Threepenny Opera, which had a major Broadway revival in the ’50s.

In 1965 Ray Manzarek played a cast recording of Mahoganny for his new band, the Doors. They adapted “Alabama Song,” as its calls for whiskey and (gender-altered by Jim Morrison) girls worked with the songs the Doors were writing at the time (here are versions by leather Morrison or bearded Morrison); the Doors played it in their sets at the Whiskey A Go-Go, where it became a standout, with most of the audience assuming it was an original. The band put “Alabama Song” on their first album; it was a remnant from a long-expired decadent era included in a bid to herald a new one.

A decade later, Bowie, planning a world tour in 1978, decided to play “Alabama Song” live; the idea may have been sparked by Bowie’s negotiations to star in a Threepenny Opera revival. It was an inspired choice, as “Alabama Song” both referenced (and slightly mocked) Bowie’s recent Berlin leanings and showed the ancestry of some of his recent songs—compare the irregular, even chaotic stressing of beats in the vocal (take “FOR–IF–we-don’t-FIND—the-next WHISKEY bar”) to Bowie’s vocals on songs like “What in the World” or “Breaking Glass.” In the Doors’ cover, Morrison had put a soulful rasp into the verses, making them flow better into the choruses. Bowie went back to Weimar, instead singing the verses with a blank expression, sometimes smoking a cigarette, flattening and deadening his tone. Then, suddenly, he would fall into the chorus, swooning and closing his eyes, with his band chanting behind him.

Pleased with how “Alabama Song” was working in his live sets, Bowie brought his touring band into Tony Visconti’s Good Earth studio in London, the day after the final Earl’s Court show, to cut a version of “Alabama Song” as a prospective single. Bowie wanted Dennis Davis to play a wild track-length drum solo, but attempting to do that live in the studio caused Davis to keep throwing off the band. The compromise was, breaking with standard recording practices, to tape the drums last, with the rhythm mainly kept by Sean Mayes’ keyboards and George Murray’s bass. Davis opens with a rumbling run on toms and cymbals, offers a stammering off-beat commentary on the choruses.

Bowie shelved “Alabama Song” until early 1980, when he finally issued it as a single. The timing was right at last: “Alabama Song” would mark his goodbye to the Seventies with a curse and smile, and, as it was an ode to sex and dollars, it would neatly welcome the Eighties.

A brief word on Stage, as this is the place for it. A live record of Philadelphia, Boston and Providence shows taped in early May 1978, it has strong versions of “Warszawa” (and all the Berlin instrumentals), “Stay” and arguably has the definitive “Station to Station.” It’s a document of transit: Bowie’s band learning how to adapt the Low/”Heroes” songs live and creating the sound of Lodger in the process, with keyboard work divided between Roger Powell (avant) and Sean Mayes (garde). Adrian Belew, having to not only cover Robert Fripp’s guitar work but Mick Ronson’s too, acquits himself well; Simon House’s violin adds an electric gypsy sound to the proceedings.

That said, as with most live records, Stage is a case of souvenirs from a trip that you (well, most of us) didn’t go on*. Most of the uptempo songs pale when compared to their originals, in particular the Ziggy Stardust material, with which none of the players were familiar. The original sequencing of the record was odd: Visconti, with Bowie’s approval, cut up the performance tapes so as to track the songs in chronological order, so that the LP began with “Hang Onto Yourself,” had a nearly all-instrumental side, and ended with “Beauty and the Beast.” This was a complete distortion of how the shows actually were performed. Bowie generally opened with nearly an hour of new material (leading off with “Warszawa”) leavened by a stray oldie like “Jean Genie”. After intermission, he returned with a revisited Ziggy Stardust (though mainly its lesser-known tracks, so “Soul Love” or “Star,” no “Suffragette City” or “Starman”), a Berlin entr’acte (“Art Decade,” “Alabama”) and closed out the set with the monster songs from Station to Station.

“Alabama Song” was performed throughout the 1978 tour, with a version on Stage. The studio version was recorded 2 July 1978 and released in February 1980 as RCA BOW 5  (#23 UK, c/w the “acoustic” remake of “Space Oddity”). Performed in 1990 and 2002.

Essential for the history of “Alabama Song”: Daniel Albright’s Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature, and Other Arts; Foster Hirsch, Kurt Weill on Stage: From Berlin to Broadway; James K. Lyon and Hans-Peter Breuer, Brecht Unbound (source of Lenya quote).

* Stage was also Bowie’s bald attempt to knock off two records from the remaining four that he owed RCA, though RCA successfully argued that the double-LP live album should only count as one.

Also, thanks very much to Time magazine, which chose “Pushing Ahead of the Dame” as a “Best Blog of 2011.” Finding my small, weird effort on the same list as the likes of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nate Silver has made it a very odd morning.

Top: Lotte Lenya, New York, 1978.