Survive

November 1, 2013

Anloo wheat field

Survive.
Survive (Omikron sequence).
Survive (video).
Survive (instrumental).
Survive (Marius DeVries UK single mix).
Survive (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Survive (Top of the Pops 2, rehearsal, 1999). (& another rehearsal.)
Survive (Top of the Pops 2, 1999).
Survive (TFI Friday, 1999).
Survive (live, Net Aid, 1999).
Survive (Cosas Que Importan, 1999).
Survive (Nulle Parte Ailleurs, 1999.)
Survive (live, 1999, later on single).
Survive (Musique Plus, 1999).
Survive (Later With Jools Holland, 1999).
Survive (live, 1999).
Survive (Quelli Che Il Calcio,’ 1999).
Survive (Inte Bara Blix, 1999).
Survive (TVE Spain, 1999).
Survive (Bowie at the Beeb, 2000).
Survive (live, 2002).

The End

We did record an awful lot of stuff, and there really was every intention of going through it and putting out Part II and Part III. The second title was Contamination, and boy was that accurate. And it would have been nice to have somehow done it as a theatrical trilogy. I just don’t have the patience. I think Brian would have the patience.

Bowie, interview by Ken Scrudato, SOMA, July 2003.

For two years after the release of 1. Outside, Bowie kept promising its sequel albums would appear by the end of the millennium, in conjunction with a theatrical production commissioned by the Salzburg Festival, to be staged in Vienna in 1999 or 2000. There also would be a CD-ROM piece of the Outside puzzle, optimistically scheduled for 1996.

Interviewed by Ray Gun at the end of that year, Bowie said 2. Contamination (“hopefully that should be out by spring ’97“) would have “some bearing on the first one, but it’s completely different. It goes backwards and forwards between Indonesian pirates of the 17th and 18th centuries and today…it’s really becoming a peculiar piece of work.” There were at least 25 characters in the piece now: whether these included the likes of Nathan Adler and Ramona Stone was unclear, possibly even to its composer.

Life intervened. Brian Eno sold his house in Britain and relocated his family to St. Petersburg1, while Bowie spent much of 1997 touring Earthling. The more unfeasible the Outside project seemed, the grander Bowie’s plans for it became.

In an April 1997 interview on the Mr. Showbiz website, Bowie said he and Eno had “formulated the storyline and decided to do it ourselves with no other musicians and to not meet while we’re making it…we’ll send the tracks back and forth between St. Petersburg and wherever I am.” Contamination’s Internet arm was carrying much of the dramatic weight by now (“we’d like to bump up all kinds of stuff on the Internet, so you get lots of photographic references…it’s kind of a Ripley’s Believe It or Not premise.”) While the 17th Century pirates were still in the mix, the “narrative” now also included diseases (“Ebola, AIDS, that new tuberculosis“), hence the title. Trent Reznor and Goldie were rumored to have been roped into it.

And even when the century was done and nothing had come about, Bowie wouldn’t let Outside go. In a web-chat in late 1999, he said he and Eno had recorded “over 24 hours of material. Problem is finding the time to sift through.” In February 2000, he told BowieNet users that, yes, finally, this would be the year he “pieced together” Contamination. Instead he re-recorded some of his old Sixties songs.

thegrad

So in the end there was nothing: no CD-ROMs, no websites, no Robert Wilson-produced operas, no new Nathan Adler diaries, no new albums. Instead Bowie had spent the last years of the 20th Century trying his hand at seemingly everything else but Outside sequels: acting in films, hosting The Hunger, launching BowieNet, agreeing to BowieBanc, planning a Ziggy Stardust film/website/play, scoring the videogame Omikron: the Nomad Soul (see the past month’s entries).

No more Outside chapters may have been a blessing. 2. Contamination and 3. Afrikaans (a rumored but never confirmed title, likely a fan’s doing) could’ve been Bowie’s version of the Matrix sequels: more clues! more characters! more time-hopping! And smothering Outside‘s atmosphere in sub-Neal Stephenson exposition and garrulous mythology. When some fans distributed hoax sequences of 2. Contamination (“Ebola Jazz,” “Segue: The Mad Ramblings of Long Beard”) and even fake Nathan Adler diaries it was as inspired an end to the project as any Bowie could have offered.

Still, the slow collapse of the Outside trilogy left a hole in his ambitions. It’s arguable his frenetic activity in 1998-1999 was in part him looking for something, anything to replace his grand millennial folly. But the album he released in the waning months of the 20th Century was something far different from his and Eno’s projects. Its title could have been Inside.

hrs

Reeves Gabrels and I have written a lot in during the last few months and we might just record all these songs to see what will come out of it…We compose for the pleasure and our spectrum is wide, between purely electronic music and acoustic songs.

Bowie, Rock & Folk interview, 1998.

If ‘Hours’2 has a counterpart in the Bowie canon, it’s Diamond Dogs: both albums are salvage jobs, their tracks refugees from a set of other, mainly stillborn projects, assembled higgledy-piggledy yet somehow managing to have a unified tone.

‘Hours’ had a few tributaries. One was the aforementioned Outside sequels. If Bowie really had recorded a day’s worth of music with Eno for 2. Contamination, it’s possible that something from it—a chord sequence, a stray lyric or a top melody—wound up on ‘Hours.’3 David Buckley, who interviewed Reeves Gabrels and Mike Garson in 1998-1999 for his biography, recalled in 2011 that both had told him there was still a lot of material recorded that had never been used (whether this was the Leon suites from 1994 or newer Contamination tracks is unclear).

Then there was Reeves Gabrels’ upcoming solo album. Gabrels had taken one for the team in 1995 by promoting Outside instead of his own debut solo LP, The Sacred Squall of Now. The plan was for Gabrels to finally have a big-ticket release, with an LP of songs co-composed with Bowie. He and Bowie, working in Bowie’s house in Bermuda in late 1998, wrote what Bowie estimated variously as anywhere from 30 or 100 songs, some of which were intended for Gabrels, including “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell,” “We All Go Through” and “Survive.”

Finally there was Omikron. Bowie and Gabrels also were writing pieces that had to serve two masters: the songs had to work as incidental music for a game sequence as well as on a Bowie or Gabrels album. The songs needed less abrasive guitar, more “ambient” synthesizer and steady basslines; they needed to be structurally loose, so that pieces (a bridge or a chorus, say) could repeat over and over again if a player got stuck on a particular screen.

surv

By now, Gabrels was becoming creatively frustrated. He felt there should have been a follow-up to Earthling, cut in early 1998, to be the Aladdin Sane to Earthling‘s Ziggy Stardust: an elaboration and expansion of a sound, honed by months on stage. “The music had evolved, the band was playing great, the window of opportunity was there,” he told Buckley. So all the time that he, Mark Plati and Bowie had spent sifting through live recordings for a rejected live album was wasted: why couldn’t they have gotten Gail Ann Dorsey and Zachary Alford into the studio and cut a trio record?

So when he went to Bermuda in autumn 1998, Gabrels hoped for another start, that this could be finally the album he and Bowie had thought of making a decade ago, before Tin Machine had come along. An open collaboration, ranging from electronic music to hard, avant-garde rock, with no record label interests considered. After all, Bowie had a website now: he could just distribute the tracks to his fans should Virgin get cold feet.

Yet Bowie had different aims. Beyond taking the needs of Omikron into consideration, he was in a more traditionalist frame of mind. He’d enjoyed a carnival phase in the mid-Nineties; now he was in a Lenten mood. “There was very little experimentation in the studio,” Bowie said. “A lot of it was just straightforward songwriting. I enjoy that; I still like writing that way.”

This new album would be his severance from his Nineties obscurantist period: to make it obvious, he had the cover of “Hours” play on Michelangelo’s Pietà, with his new, somber curator persona cradling the dying “rave uncle” of Earthling. Both videos for the album would set Bowie in surreal domestic situations, with muted colors and lighting; the actor looking his age for once.

Gabrels conceded. As the album, as it took shape, was becoming somber and introspective, he needed to dampen down the guitars, to be sure that he wasn’t undermining the songs. It’s a small irony that the one album for which Gabrels received full co-composition credit is the one on which he’s essentially muted on guitar. And Bowie in turn wanted his vocals not to sound mannered. “I wanted to approach them just like a bloke. To give them a feeling of: anybody could sing these songs. They’re not difficult.”

hurr

Once he’d assembled enough songs for his own album (and so claiming the lion’s share of them—sorry, Reeves), Bowie began working on a narrative voice. He described this as being a distillation of some of his friends who, at age 50, were regretting their lives. “I’ve watched them flounder a little over the last 10 years, when they’re reaching that stage where it’s very, very hard to start a new life,” he told Gil Kaufman. “Some of them are affected with resignation and some of them, a certain bitterness maybe…they found themselves in relationships that aren’t what they had expected to be in when they were younger.”

You could call this a bluff, the equivalent of the man who asks a doctor about an embarrassing rash “a friend” has contracted. Sure Bowie was, by all accounts, happily married and would soon be a father again. He was rich, established, world-famous. Not that these conditions will prevent depression and regret from striking. But he was also creatively exhausted. He had fought and fought, for years, to make his music new again, to risk making a fool of himself on stage. Now his latest spectacle had failed due, in part, to his own lack of commitment; perhaps he was left wondering what he even had left to say anymore.

That said, the voice that Bowie used on much of ‘Hours,’ a melancholy sad sack, does seem crafted, even affected. The vocals are restrained, the lyrics are more quotidian, with dull rhymes and shopworn images. Was this in character, or was Bowie papering over, in his interviews, a sharp decline in his own songwriting? Was he charging his generation with his own creative depletion?

I’ll argue that ‘Hours’ is a flawed experiment, a secret parody: it’s Bowie attempting to do a record “proper” for a man of his age and stature. It’s his aging Baby Boomer lament album, his “September Songs” for a generation (the title played on unforgiving time and a common bond: hours/ours). He’d listened to nothing but his old songs before he wrote this album, he claimed, but he’d also obviously listened to his aging peers. Because ‘Hours’ is riddled with ghosts of old songs, with strains of lost singers: he’s mocking them, answering them, humbled by them. It’s one of his hardest albums to grasp, because it can be dull and ordinary and can feel strained: it’s like watching a once-great track runner struggling to run a 5k race. The question, left to each listener, is whether this mood is intentional: if the diminished figure in these songs is a subtle mask or if it’s simply the only voice Bowie could muster.

singl

“Survive” was the first track to be released from the ‘Hours’ sessions. Its title wasn’t promising.

As I wrote in the “Heroes” entry, Greil Marcus around 1975 had noticed the growing popularity of the word “survivor,” in films, on TV chat shows, and especially rock music: “Soul Survivor,” Street Survivors, “Survival,” “I Will Survive.” It seemed to me to speak for everything empty, tawdry, and stupid about the seventies, to stand for every cheat, for every failure of nerve. “Survivor” had once meant someone who had endured an unspeakable horror; it became an aging person’s self-deprecating boast. “I will get by…I will survive,” Jerry Garcia had tootled in 1987 (he didn’t, but again, neither will any of us in the long run).

So a song in which a 52-year old man sings about surviving seems emblematic of this rot: a reduction of life to its greyest elements. It could have been a song about his failing digestion. What saves “Survive” is the sour, occasionally defiant sense of regret in it: the singer’s not regretting a path he didn’t take, but simply noting that there are no more paths left for him anymore. In one interview, Bowie said that “there was a time in my life where I was desperately in love with a girl—and I met her, as it happens, quite a number of years later. And boy, was the flame dead! ” So it’s tempting to speculate that the woman in “Survive” came from a retrieved memory of Hermione Farthingale, Bowie’s lost love, who he’d used to symbolize everything he’d left behind in the Sixties. But the woman in “Survive” is still abstract to the singer, a place-filler he uses to stand for something else he can’t quite explain: a loss of his own potential.

surv

There are a few Sixties shadows in the track: Mark Plati’s Mellotron, the Beatles playing clubs, “Time Is On My Side,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (the guitar hook heard at the fade, of course referencing Bowie’s nicking of it for “Starman” too). But the song “Survive” answers, very obliquely, is Nick Drake’s “One of These Things First.

In Drake’s song, a young man sits and thumbs through possible lives: he’s like a boy watching soap bubbles floating in the air. “Could’ve been a sailor, could’ve been a cook.” He could have been reliable, steady; he chose not to be. He’s callous in how much he could hurt the person he’s speaking to. Could’ve been a real live lover, not the half-one that you got. “Could have been your friend,” he sings, attaching as much weight to that word as to his musings about being clocks and books. “A whole long lifetime/could have been the end.” Committing to someone would mean the end of his freedom, closing off all the other avenues that snake out beyond him. Drake wants to remain in the conditional perfect, in a happy state of possibility. He sings with graceful lightness, supported by Paul Harris’ piano, itself eager to break off into yet another line of thought, while Ed Carter’s bass is a squirrelly movement underground.

“Survive” turns up that singer again, finds him at the ebb of his life. No more mornings left for him. But he’s still committed to the what-could-have been, still bluntly denying reality, still wanting his space. “I should’ve kept you,” he mumbles. “I should’ve tried.” The verses seem to run out of breath, slouching into dull rhymes (“I should’ve been a wiser kind of guy“) and weary expiration phrases: “Iiii love you.” The choruses, feinting at a move to A major but winding up stuck back in the verse’s D major, struggle to voice the man’s few hopes. A descending bassline tugs him down to earth.

(Gabrels, who’d written much of the song’s music for his solo album, gets the best part in the play: the lead guitar, representing the noblest piece of the man who’s singing. Gabrels is the only bright color in the song: the little dancing phrase after “I miss you,” the counter-melody in the second chorus, the eight-bar solo that’s like a puff of hope uncorked from a bottle, the descending arpeggios that shadow the man’s growing ambivalence.)

He sees a woman across the floor somewhere, maybe at some class reunion. They could’ve been something once: they both know it, they both may not regret it. You’re the mistake I never made, he sings. She sees through him, as an old fraud, as someone who never settled for life in the hopes of finding something better. And he knows how she sees him, and that she’s right. But I’ll survive your naked eyes, as the song ends. There’s nothing but delusion, never was anything else but it (the song itself is a loop: opening and ending on the same Dadd9 chord, the two choruses bracketed by the two verses)4. The song ends with an older man’s sad defiance, which loses strength each time he says it, until he gives up and lets the song expire in his place.

Recorded April-early May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda, with overdubs at Looking Glass Studios and Chung King Studios, NYC. It was the first release from ‘Hours,’ issued on a promo giveaway with the 8-14 September 1999 issue of Les Inrockuptibles. Subsequently on ‘Hours’ and as a 2-CD single (Virgin 7243 8 96486 0 7, 7243 8 96487 0 6) released on 17 January 2000, which included Marius de Vries’ mix, the Walter Stern-directed video clip and a live performance of the song from the Elysée Montmartre, 14 October 1999. Performed on a host of TV and radio shows and played live in 1999, 2000 and 2002.

1: Eno told Mojo in May 1997 that he moved to Russia because “since London is now the hippest city in the world, I thought I’d get out for a bit…If you live in England and you finally scale the thorny path to celebrity, finally the critics decide, ‘Fuck me, he’s been around so long I guess we should leave him alone.’ You then find you get invited to do every stupid, pathetic thing going—you know, judge this competition, award this, and so on—and I just saw my life turning into a series of small events. I thought I’d go somewhere else where there aren’t any small events.”

2: Yeah, the official title of the album is ‘hours…’ I’ll refer to it simply as ‘Hours’ in all further references because the lower-case affectation irritates me and having to put in three ellipses every bloody time I mention the album would be a bother.

3: That said, the most obvious candidate for a Contamination leftover, the instrumental “Brilliant Adventure,” is confirmed by Bowie to have been written in Bermuda and was intended as part of the Omikron soundtrack.

4: Both verse and chorus open shuttling between tonic and flatted VII chords (so D to C in the verse, A to G in the chorus), darken midway through with a run of minor chords and each closes by setting up the opposing key (so the verse ends with a G that the A major opening of the chorus resolves; the chorus just sinks back to D).

Top: Thierry Gregorius, “Anloo wheat field, Holland, 1999”; Bowie receiving honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music, May 1999; ‘Hours’ cover photos (Tim Bret Day); still from “Survive” video (Walter Stern); “Survive” CD sleeve.

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I’m Afraid of Americans

May 14, 2013

cheer

I’m Afraid of Americans (first version, Showgirls OST).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Earthling remake).
I’m Afraid of Americans (video, Trent Reznor Remix V1).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V2).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V3, Ice Cube).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V4).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V5, Photek).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V6).
I’m Afraid of Americans (50th Birthday concert, w/ Sonic Youth, 1997).
I’m Afraid of Americans (live, 1997).
I’m Afraid of Americans (GQ Awards, 1997).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Howard Stern Show, 1998).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Musique Plus, 1999).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Live at the BBC, 2000).
I’m Afraid of Americans (live, 2002).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Live By Request, 2002).
I’m Afraid of Americans (live, 2002).
I’m Afraid of Americans (live, 2004).
I’m Afraid of Americans (NIN, live, 2009).

I never said, “The superman exists, and he’s American.” What I said was,”God exists, and he’s American.”

Prof. Milton Glass, Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen.

“I’m Afraid of Americans,” made and remade over the course of two years, has no definitive version. It’s an Earthling album track, a soundtrack obscurity and, in its most popular incarnation, a Trent Reznor single remix, which was a minor US hit in 1997. Slot it as another of Bowie’s “stateless” songs, in the company of “Holy Holy” and “Strangers When We Meet.” Originally called “Dummy” (a Portishead nod?), the song came out of the final sessions for Outside in January 1995, its initial mix a fairly rote Brian Eno concoction of drum, synthesizer and distorted vocal loops, a few of which—a monotone laugh hook and a synth hook that pinged around an E-flat octave—persevered through most subsequent revisions.

Its first lyric hinted at Bowie’s renewed interest in David Byrne (see “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town”), its chorus calling back to the Talking Heads’ “Animals”: “I’m afraid of the animals!” Bowie howled, with an apparent vocal improvisation turning “animals” into “Americans” by the close of the track. Not making the cut for Outside, “Dummy” was quickly slated for Johnny Mnemonic, a Keanu Reeves-starring adaption of a William Gibson short story, which opened in May 1995.* But allegedly Eno told Bowie to rescind the offer, as the film sounded bad (one ill omen: Bono had been offered a role and turned it down). So instead “Dummy,” by now retitled “I’m Afraid of Americans,” wound up on the soundtrack of Joe Eszterhas’ and Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls.

This was the version of “Americans” that I first heard, as Showgirls, at least in New York in the winter of 1995-1996, quickly evolved from first-run flop into a cult film playing the midnight circuit. Given the ludicrous nature of Showgirls, (“I’m erect. Why aren’t you erect?” “Only people I know got pimp cars are pimps.” Only Road House has better lines), Bowie growling lines like “dummy wants to suck on a Coke” seemed appropriate—its lyric is basically poor Elizabeth Berkley’s plotline in the film. The Showgirls soundtrack, an uninspired collection of mild Goth and pop industrial, was released around Christmas ’95 and went into rotation, well at least in a few West Village and Upper East Side bars I frequented, more for its connection to the revered film than for any merit of its own.

I mention this because “I’m Afraid of Americans,” from my perspective, was the last Bowie song that had any purchase in America, the last song of his (chronologically-speaking) that I can recall hearing in public, Bowie’s voice intoning in a club or piping out through car speakers (mainly the track’s Reznor mix incarnation). In the US at least, “Americans” is the last Bowie song that rattled around in a wider culture, existing outside of Bowie fandom: its paranoid video was part of the TV compost of the late Nineties.

shwgirls

Maybe he was embarrassed that a song of his wound up on the Showgirls soundtrack, or he might have been looking for workable material in the time-tightened Earthling sessions. In any event, Bowie revised “I’m Afraid of Americans” in August 1996, changing the lyric’s protagonist to “Johnny” (a callback to Mnemonic, or perhaps to Bowie’s own “Repetition.”)

He kept the structure of the song, a one-chord vamp in F major,* mainly intact: spare verses sewn through with loops and hooks and given a near-conversational phrasing, Bowie keeping to a two-note range; choruses where multiple-tracked guitars kicked in and Bowie moved to his higher register, his phrases now spanning fifths (“afraid of the WORLD,” “afraid I can’t HELP IT”). For Earthling, he transposed and rewrote verses: the Showgirls version’s opening verse became the Earthling version’s third, while he put in a new opener that incorporated the “laugh” hook.

The remake was bright and “current”: its arrangement was a stew of everything from Nine Inch Nails to favorites like Underworld and Photek (the new opening line sounded like “Photek’s at the wheel”), its mix was in line with the post-Pixies, post-Nirvana “alternative” rock template of volleying between sonic extremes for verses and choruses. But the new mix was also cluttered, with seemingly every bar affixed with baubles: a keyboard gurgle, a feedback whistle, assorted static, twinging high synth note loops, a synth line in the chorus that sounded like “Macarena,” various Reeves Gabrels pull-offs and bent notes. For ballast it had its main hook, a riff sounding root and fifth notes of the F chord, carried first on keyboard and then, in the chorus, thundered by Gail Ann Dorsey’s bass.

So dedicated to spectacle, the Earthling “Americans” could fumble the drama: the climactic “God is an American” section began with Bowie singing over Mike Garson’s keyboards, a sense of lightness and unease (slightly suggesting Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” which Bowie would play live during the subsequent tour). But the mood died when Bowie then up-shifted to another chorus, singing, in strained voice, over jacked-up drums. Still, the tasteless shifts in tone and the over-the-top mix fit what Bowie intended: the singer was afraid of Americans, but his song was meant to cater to their debased tastes.

trentmix

Where the song’s first lyric had Bowie afraid of the natural world, in later versions his paranoia found richer territory. “Americans” were an easy target. By the mid-Nineties, with the Cold War wound down and the virtues of Yankee capitalism unquestioned, the public face of the United States, to some, was a bloated, drunken fan celebrating his team’s victory well after the game had been called. God is an American, as Bowie sang.**

As much as Bowie had been fascinated by America as a kid, as much as commercial success there had consumed him in the early Seventies, he never shook his view of the country as being fundamentally crass, incoherent and violent (he loved to describe his first visits to the US in 1971-2 as a time when there were “snipers on the roofs”). He explained the lyric of “Americans” to journalists by saying he was referring to the public face of America, the one that everyone else in the world has to see: its gaudy advertisements, its junk food, its all-conquering franchises, its action films. “I was traveling in Java when [its] first McDonald’s went up: it was like, “for fuck’s sake,’” he said. Meanwhile the “real America” of blues musicians and Beat poets (“the aspects of America that are really magical to us,” Bowie said) remained hidden, even (or especially) at home.

There was a bit of Gnosticism here: while the visible America is a false, fallen world, the true “magical” one is accessible only to those who learn to see it. What most of us see is just surface America, the backlot that “Johnny” walks through in the song while eating, driving, screwing, preening in the mirror. Even the false God (again, pure Gnosticism) who created the world is an American, and he’s busy drowning out any murmurs of resistance with Entertainment Tonight and the OJ Simpson trial.

But Bowie’s “real” America was just as tainted: blues musicians and Beat poets are just as commodified as Pepsi, as are “outsider” artists, punk rockers, skateboarders, rappers and any other potential subversives. They’re just less-attended wings of the same carnival tent. The fact that “I’m Afraid of Americans” became a minor US hit (like “Young Americans,” another jeremiad turned into a good-time song by the country it belittled) showed how the carnival endures: piss on the tent, and you get brought in and made into a fresh act.

afraid

Its video was a European tourist’s nightmare of walking in an American city. Some thuggish American will single you out for your weird clothes and accent, and chase you down; everyone’s armed; the street people are jabbering and menacing; the cabbies are lunatics; the whole place is overrun by machine guns and Christian fanatics. (Trent Reznor, looking like a Manson Family member and wearing Travis Bickle’s jacket, plays a convincing heavy).***

The video used Reznor’s first remix of the song, which was issued as the radio single. In it, Reznor scrubbed the track of much of the Gabrels/Eno jiggery-pokery, instead staggering new loops and riffs for ominous effects (a static grinding noise mixed right builds to swamp the first chorus). The bassline is held back until the second chorus, where it’s delivered via harsh, distorted guitar. Later choruses are shaken by jackhammer synth beats; “God is American,” chanted over a chanted loop that’s shadowed by an murderous bassline, is the last word: the song never returns to the bravado of its chorus again, instead just muttering its way to the fade.

For me, it’s the best version, but other spins of the wheel turn up equally appealing/appalling faces: the fledgling version trapped in the high trash of Showgirls; the geegaw-filled Earthling take; the Ice Cube remix, where Cube chases Bowie’s voice through the track as Reznor did in the video (“shut up and be happy!” he yells. “Superbowl Sunday!“); the various live versions that rely on the muscle-flexing chorus for effect. A hydra-headed song, “Americans” is Bowie’s last bitter populist moment.

miss america

Original version recorded ca. January 1995, Record Plant, NYC, and released in December 1995 on the Showgirls OST (Interscope 92652-2). The remake, recorded at Looking Glass Studios in August 1996, appeared on Earthling, while Reznor’s various remixes were issued on a US-only CD single (Virgin V25H-38618, #66 US), issued October 1997. Performed live throughout the remainder of Bowie’s tours.

* Most of the time the song stays on a F7 chord, but the guitars shift to F5 power chords to beef up the choruses. A C minor (the dominant chord of F’s parallel minor) makes a cameo appearance in the “God is an American” section.

** One ancestor to this song is Jackson Browne’s “Lawyers in Love,” a vicious late Cold War satire in a cheery pop package, complete with doo-wop breaks: it’s the US fulfilling its Manifest Destiny at last (“now we’ve got all this room! we’ve even got the moon!“), with God sending spaceships down to blessed America in time to watch us watch the six o’clock news, and where even the layabout Jesus Christ has to get a job. Browne’s prediction that “I hear the U.S.S.R. will be open soon/As vacation land for lawyers in love” was pretty much how it turned out.

*** Recall that around this time the papers were playing up a “wave” of German tourists being mugged and killed in Florida. Also, the ill-fated 1996 revival of Doctor Who opens with Sylvester McCoy walking out into a San Francisco street, immediately being shot by thugs and dying on an operating table thanks to American surgical malpractice.

Top to bottom: “Streetpix,” “Cheerleaders, New Year’s Day Parade, London, 1996.”; various fearful or fearsome Americans.


I Am With Name/ Segue: Ramona A. Stone

January 31, 2013

ramona

I Am With Name (Leon suite) (plus annotations).
Segue: Ramona A. Stone/ I Am With Name (Outside).

There was a theory that one creates a doppelganger and then imbues that with all your faults and guilts and fears and then eventually you destroy him, hopefully destroying all your guilt, fear and paranoia. And I often feel that I was doing that unwittingly, creating an alternative ego that would take on everything that I was insecure about.

Bowie, Arena interview, 1993.

So you are what’s been manipulated in each of these pieces [segues]?

Bowie: Yes, they’re all based on me.

Interview with Moon Zappa, Interview, 1995.

The five characters Bowie invented for Leon, and which he later imported into Outside, allegedly came out of his “orgiastic” improvisation session with the band in March 1994, with Bowie pulling together voices, intentions and actions by reading lines from sheets of paper scattered across a table. (Later interviews established that there had been some preparatory work done before this, with Bowie using his “Verbasizer” (an automatic cut-up lyric generator) computer program, among other things.)

In what seems like the “final” version of Leon, Bowie’s characters crept in and out of three suites: “Leon Takes Us Outside” focused on the detective Nathan Adler and the cipher Leon Blank, while “Enemy Is Fragile” was a revue, with all the characters making appearances. And “I Am With Name” was devoted, in spirit at least, to Ramona A. Stone, the villain of the piece. This was the most disturbing and weird of the suites, featuring two unnerving/irritating “anxiety raps,” where Bowie sounded like a man who believes rats are climbing all over his body, and a SF fascist sequence involving the “Leek Soldiers.” “Bit of a dark spiral with no end,” as old Touchshriek mutters at the close.

What survived of this suite on Outside was a re-recorded, edited version of one of Ramona’s two segues: her appearance on “I Am With Name.” This piece was mixed over the backing track of “I Am With Name” and then segued directly into the latter song. While it was Ramona’s only appearance on the album, she was elsewhere as a specter/object of malice and lust (“Hearts Filthy Lesson,” for example).

There’s a hierarchy of sorts in the Outside crew: Leon is kept the farthest distance away; Baby Grace and Touchshriek, victim and witness, are miniature character studies; Adler and Ramona, an interlocked pair, seem most like twisted self-portraits of Bowie. We’ll get to Adler in a bit, but it’s worth looking at Ramona here.

I won’t go as far as Steele Savage, who wrote that Ramona “represents everything that Bowie hates about himself,”*but there is the sense that Bowie’s using the character of Ramona—a futurist fascist, white supremacist and aesthetic murderer (an art critic who kills!), a vain “high priestess” of art (“I was an artiste!…in a tunnel”), someone so disgusted by aging that she dreams of becoming a machine—in the vein of the ugly parallel self he’d created with the Thin White Duke character. She’s a highbrow version of another reappearing Bowie doppelganger: the emotionally void, possibly homicidal creep of “Running Gun Blues” and some of the Tin Machine songs. As Momus said (in the comments to “I Can’t Read”), “this parallel self is a fink, a fish, an automaton, a killer-zombie, a wife-beater, a conformist, empty and dead inside.”

It’s not that grim, though (I mean, the picture of Ramona alone, with Bowie’s face imposed on a She-Hulk cyborg figure wearing a Mohawk, is pretty barmy). Ramona’s also a parody of Bowie as High Artist and cultural vampire. She first appears in Adler’s diary in “Kreutzburg, Berlin,” 1977, where she’s running a Caucasian Suicide Temple, “vomiting out her doctrine of death-as-eternal-party into the empty vessels of Berlin youth.” She turns up around the millennium in London, Canada, running a “string of body-parts jewelry stores,” and in her song, “I Am With Name,” she seems reduced to a pure automaton, a “good time drone” that, in Adler’s words, says “in the future, everything was up to itself.”

For the Ramona character, Bowie triple-tracked (or more) his voice, altering each with a vocoder and/or other harmonizing synthesizers, possibly Eno’s Eventide H3000. Bowie winds up sounding like a premonition of Andy Serkis’ “Gollum” voice. The only thing that’s not synthetic on “Name,” which is built on sounds generated by, among others, Eno’s Yamaha DX-7, E-mu Procussion Module and Lexicon JamMan, is Mike Garson, whose fleeting bursts of piano are a last bit of humanity left in the matrix.

Recorded ca. May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and Westside Studios, London (with overdubs at Brondesbury Villas Studio, London, January 1995). “Stone”/”I Am With Name” was released on Outside, September 1995.

* See also Angela Bowie’s typically barbed comment to Peter Koenig: “David wants to be a dictator, not God. His fixation is with himself and he strives to ignore his own self-loathing.”

Top: Bowie dresses in battle gear as Ramona.


Leon Takes Us Outside

January 28, 2013

tricky bird

Leon Takes Us Outside (Leon suite w/”I’d Rather Be Chrome,” “We’ll Creep Together,” annotation/links).
Leon Takes Us Outside (Outside).

Of what was once a tangled forest, all that remains are a few saplings. So the opening track of Outside, “Leon Takes Us Outside,” a minute-and-a-half piece consisting of guitar, piano and synthesizer accompaniment for a voice that murmurs a list of random dates and holidays, is the only surviving piece of a 21-minute musical suite.

Likely planned as the first of the three Leon suites, the “Leon Takes Us Outside” suite, which begins with the “Leon Takes” fragment, devotes much of its length to two movements that have been bootlegged —the “OK Riot/I’d Rather Be Chrome” sequence and “We’ll Creep Together,” the latter unfortunately circulating in a maimed version. Where the “Enemy Is Fragile” suite featured a set of paired characters (detective/suspect, child victim/elderly witness), “Leon” centers on the mysterious figure of “Leon Blank,” outsider artist and possible killer/martyr. The only other voices appearing in the suite are those of Bowie’s various deranged narrators and of the detective Nathan Adler, who apparently sings the climactic “I’d Rather Be Chrome” sequence.

While Leon Blank’s perspective survives in several of the Outside songs (“I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” whose ancestor may be in the “Leon Takes” suite, is from his POV, for example), this intro fragment is the only time that you hear Leon “speak.” He’s just whispering a stream of random information, a conflation of American and British (Leon mentions both Michaelmas Day and Martin Luther King Day, says both “July 6th” and “5th March”), as though he’s programming a string of code, a sequence to wake up the machine. As Nicholas Pegg noted, its similarity to the buzz-and-murmur opening of one of Eno’s most recent projects at the time, U2’s Zooropa, is likely no coincidence.

leon can ya hear?

These ‘outside’ people were really the people I wanted to be like. Burroughs, particularly. I derived so much satisfaction from the way he would scramble life and it no longer felt scrambled reading him. I thought, ‘God, it feels like this, that sense of urgency and danger in everything that you do, this veneer of rationality and absolutism about the way that you live.’

Bowie, co-interview with Eno for Time Out, by Dominic Wells, 1995.

Bowie’s only published information about the Leon character was in the “Nathan Adler Diary,” which noted that Leon was a 22-year old of mixed race who had a rap sheet (including “plagiarism without a license”), and in one of the official Adler segues, where Adler recalled Leon jumping on stage at midnight and, wielding a machete, cutting “zeroes” in everything, and eventually ripping a hole in “the fabric of time itself.”

Even by the standards of the Outside “non-narrative,” the Leon character is a cipher. Still, he generally seems meant to represent the “outsider” artist figure that so fascinated Bowie and Eno at the time (e.g., their visit to the artist’s wing of Gugging Asylum). And in particular, the character seems partially inspired by Tricky, a young British musician who was a favorite of Bowie’s in the mid-Nineties and who Bowie would soon “interview” in a bizarre article for (see the upcoming “The Narratives.”)

Leon’s rap sheet seems to reference Tricky’s life. The son of a Ghanaian-English mother and Jamaican father, Tricky had spent time in prison as a youth for allegedly buying counterfeit £50 notes from a friend, who later grassed on him to the police. And by 1994, when Tricky had split from the rap collective Massive Attack and was finishing his debut Maxinquaye, he was arguably the most vital musician working in Britain. Bowie rewrote him as Leon, a boundary-shattering artist who gets caught in a narrative web, and he used some of Tricky’s sonic trademarks—ambient street noise, esp. the sound of rain, and Tricky’s own murmuring flow, which Bowie is arguably imitating on “Leon Takes”—as signifiers on Outside.

Was Bowie guilty here of fetishizing Tricky, or “outsider” artists (esp. racial minorities) in general? (The late Haitian-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is also in the mix here—soon after he made Outside, Bowie would play Andy Warhol in Julian Schabel’s bio-pic of Basquiat.) We’ll dig into this more in the upcoming “Narratives” entry. But it was in keeping with an established Bowie strategy. He was an adventurer who needed occasionally to replenish his stock of forward scouts, so he appropriated various “outsiders” for his own ends, whether as collaborators or as symbols (or, in Iggy Pop’s case, both).

Recorded ca. May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and Westside Studios, London. Released (“Leon Takes” song fragment) in September 1995 on 1. Outside.

Top: Tricky and Martina Topley-Bird, 1994.


The Enemy Is Fragile

January 24, 2013

gns

The Enemy Is Fragile.

The centerpiece of the Leon suite it (allegedly) titled, “The Enemy Is Fragile” is sung by a character who Bowie discarded when converting Leon into Outside. Pompous, vaguely academic, speaking in an exaggeration of Bowie’s “typical” voice, he’s Leon‘s narrator, its ringmaster. This was Bowie acting out the role Eno had assigned him: a member of an early 21st Century “Art and Language” band, one who makes incantations, permutations of something between speech and singing…a melange of several languages, since most of your audience now speak a patois that effortlessly blends English, Spanish, Chinese and Wolof…Your audience regards you as the greatest living exponent of live abstract poetry. Samuel Beckett is a big influence.

Bowie structured many of his early vocal improvisations around this character, who’s the dominant voice of the “Enemy Is Fragile” suite and who appears in the other two Leon movements. But as he developed more interesting (or at least more fun) voices, like Nathan Adler and Ramona A. Stone, the narrator’s use diminished. And as Bowie tried to make his “storyline” more open-ended, more disassociated, there was little need for an “author.” Leon‘s first voice had become a hindrance. So the first murder victim in Outside isn’t poor Baby Grace but this figure: a narrator who’s been killed and earthed before the album begins.*

Fanned across the “Fragile” suite are a few characters, like face cards in a hand. First the narrator, then Adler and Stone (they’re mirrors: art criminologist/artist, detective/suspect, etc.), later Baby Grace and old Touchshriek. But it’s mainly the narrator’s show, whether with his bizarre CD-ROM endorsement (while Ramona warns that the developing Internet is like a web, the narrator is a clueless booster) or his performance in the “Fragile” song itself, the hub of the sequence. Heralded by a tangle of percussion (Sterling Campbell’s kick drum, congas, synthetic “beaters”), Bowie starts the song off by gleefully naming the prime suspect of Grace’s murder:**

Hullo, Leon! Would you like something…really fishy?

The chorus kicks in with a sliding Erdal Kizilcay bassline, soon agitated on the top end by a whirling Mike Garson piano figure. The track’s rhythmic base is a stew of influences: Eno’s work with the Talking Heads (especially “Born Under Punches”) and, in Gabrels’ case, Adrian Belew-era King Crimson. (“A Small Plot of Land” has a similar ancestry.)

The narrator soon gets to work, channeling voices and playing roles: Henry II ordering the murder of Thomas Becket (“who has seen this FURIOUS MAN”? Who will rid me of this shaking head?“), a somber exorcist (“the enemy has always been here“), a murder detective. The latter finds a “fading photograph” in a sofa “forgotten by the last tenant” (Touchshriek’s tenant? and Baby Grace said she felt “like a fading photograph“), and soon enough he’s going over Grace’s corpse. “There’s something in her mouthsomething between patois and Becket(t)**…I bet it is a speech.” He probes into a corpse’s mouth and finds something lodged in her throat, but instead of the moth pupa of Silence of the Lambs, he extracts an accent.

Halfway through his “investigation,” he snaps, ordering his suspect to dance. This triggers the highlight of the track, a fantastic 16-bar break: Campbell bludgeoning his snare as if it had done him wrong, Kizilcay roaming on the loose, Gabrels playing an air-raid siren obbligato worthy of the Bomb Squad. Afterward everyone takes a breath, allowing for a message from sponsors—a return of the CD-ROM spiel that the narrator gave earlier in the sequence. “Sample techniques, exponents of the greatest Wolof band of the 21st Century… Phase techniques, and rich 21st Century Spanish incantations.

For the last section, the band kicks into life again, Campbell now accenting his furious kick beats with constant sizzle from his ride cymbals. The narrator unspools into a string of words, tearing apart whatever structure he’d tried to build. You ARE: a permutation! You ARE: a patois! You ARE: speech delay! You ARE: fighting to the death! And so he dies: “Enemy Is Fragile” collapses into a spittle-spray of language. It ends with one of the survivors: Garson, airily pursuing a flight of thought across the high keys of his piano.

Recorded May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Westside Studios, London. Unreleased.

* In a few interviews to promote Outside, Bowie name-dropped Barthes’ Death of the Author.

** Another possible influence on Bowie’s writing was the set of grim UK police shows of 1992-1994, esp. Prime Suspect and Cracker, each of which used serial killers of young women as staple villains.

*** Words taken directly from Eno’s summary, with Bowie also playing off the earlier Thomas Becket reference and Samuel Beckett’s dialogue (a modernist patois).

Top: Ron Aviv, “Kids Play Soldier,” Sarajevo, 1994.


Nothing To Be Desired

January 22, 2013

reality

Nothing To Be Desired.

So 2013 is the year where you scrap everything that you once concluded: the Year of Shattered Hypotheses. First, Mr. Bowie returns and spoils my grand narrative that would’ve had him retiring with “Little Fat Man.” Then, after spending nearly a week trying to get a handle on the confusing mess that is the Leon sessions, and writing my conclusions about sequencing, etc., on “I’d Rather Be Chrome,” I got to hear the actual Leon tape. (I’ll likely revise the “Chrome” and “We’ll Creep Together” posts soon to reflect this.)

The 70-minute Leon is the Rosetta Stone of this murky period in Bowie history: everything scattered around the Internet in fragments and under various assumed names all fits together in it. Leon, in what sounds like its finished state, was meant to be three movements: “Leon Takes Us Outside,” “I Am With Name” and “The Enemy Is Fragile.” It seems likely that Leon as a whole was the “operatic” piece of music that Reeves Gabrels once referred to. So a new theory, one likely to be discredited soon enough: Bowie decided (or conceded) to turn Outside into a single CD in 1995. While the more discrete songs recorded in the 1994 sessions, like “The Motel” and “Hearts Filthy Lesson,” easily made the transfer, it was difficult to extract pieces from the intricately-sequenced and dense Leon movements. Only a few of the (severely) edited segues and two songs survived.

Besides “I Am With Name,” the only officially-released piece of music from the Leon movements was the fragment “Nothing To Be Desired,” issued as a B-side of the US CD single of “The Hearts Filthy Lesson.” This was an extract from the “Enemy Is Fragile” suite, which I annotated in insane detail here.

The “Fragile” suite begins with Bowie in a character not heard on Outside—a “narrator” figure who mainly speaks in Bowie’s actual voice (I’m guessing this was DB playing the role Eno had assigned him, the “town crier” of the 21st Century). After appearances by Nathan Adler and his adversary, Ramona A. Stone, the narrator returns to tout the wonders of a CD-ROM (Bowie rolling the “r” like he was going for an elocution prize) that’s an interactive compilation of Wolof music. The narrator concludes his pitch with: The editorial apparatus of this CD-ROM leaves nothing to be desired.

All along, a snaking bassline has been playing beneath the narrator’s pitch and suddenly he gives way to it, savoring the sound of the last four words, chanting them like a mantra. He’s soon joined by a chorus that include his own distorted “Laughing Gnome” imp voice. They echo his “nothing to be desireds” and a subsequent chant—mind changing, change your MIND changing MIND changing. A piece of pompous ad copy from a CD-ROM pitch has become a religious invocation. The chants build, driven by Mike Garson’s pounded piano chords, the bass holding on a root note, Bowie bracing himself (“stand by! stand by!”) until the tension breaks with a simple drum fill. The singers repeat the phrases for another minute, Bowie sounding increasingly unhinged, until a fade links the sequence to the next spoken segue.

The B-side finishes the joke. On Leon, “nothing to be desired” transmuted from an empty phrase in a ridiculous advertisement into a tribal chant. In its official release, the phrase, torn loose from its original, now-forgotten function, became just an empty piece of language, just another dance floor hook. For the B-side, Bowie prefaced the Leon extract with a minute of high-mixed drums and Gabrels’ guitar that continued throughout the vocal section (it’s hard to determine whether Bowie rerecorded the backing track entirely or just layered in a set of new overdubs—the bassline seems to be different than the Leon original.)

Released without notice in 1995 and barely remembered in the near-two decades since, “Desired” is one of the few surviving pieces of the original Leon; it’s a strange orphan that Bowie dressed up and cast out into the world, without any letters of introduction.

Recorded May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and Westside Studios, London. Released as the B-side of the US “Hearts Filthy Lesson” CD single digipak (Virgin 7432 8 38518 2 9), and later included on the 2004 2-CD limited reissue of Outside.

Top: Janeane Garofalo, Winona Ryder and product placement, Reality Bites (Stiller, 1994).


We’ll Creep Together

January 17, 2013

ah-HAH

We’ll Creep Together.
We’ll Creep Together (studio performance, Outside Electronic Press Kit, 1995).
We’ll Creep Together (alternate “Garson” version, part of “Inside” sequence).

An old man totters out upon the balcony. He hears the crowd well before he sees them. When he reaches the railing, he looks down upon the masses pooled in the streets below. Lit by torches, kerosene lamps, cigarette lighters and glow-sticks, the crowd is a wide, soughing sea, extending outward in great rivers of people, well past the gutted skyscrapers, past the Church of Dogs, beyond the calamity tents and mechanoid farms, perhaps as far as the harbor. It’s a warm night and the air clings to the skin, but the man, who wears his last silk suit (which has frayed at the cuffs and which has gone threadbare in places) is too proud, and too dessicated, to break a sweat. He sees children, borne in their mothers arms, with their ears pierced by thick chrome bolts. Men wear superhero masks, women dress in drag. A ball, or no, actually a severed head, is tossed around.

The man is, perhaps, a British Marshal Pétain. Or some last remnant of some fallen order (he’s a parallel to the gumshoe Nathan Adler—it’s another dying 20th Century voice, here the refined, decayed hauteur once associated with Merchant-Ivory films and Noel Coward records), one who’s revered by those who seethe happily below him. He is their last grandparent, and he has his duties. His aide, who has a thin pewter rod that links his left earlobe with his left nostril, carries out the microphone stand. The man gathers breath from whatever pockets of it remain within him and speaks, his words echoing from the set of speakers, supported by hemp ropes, that are suspended over the crowd.

Friends….of the trust. You’ve been a breath-filled crowd tonight. A fine start. Cheers, bottles raised to him. A happy fistfight breaks out near the base of the building.

You’ve been positively…fly, boys. This condescension is a real hit—there are screams and hoots, bursts of applause, and the severed head is hurled into the air so high that the man wonders if it will hit one of the speakers. He forces a smile, leans into the microphone as if the wind is picking up.

We are surely on our way! Upon that superhighway of information. A slight dip in enthusiasm, some mutters. The man quickly recovers.

As far as I’m concerned, you are all number one packet sniffers! Screams, wails, guns fired, chains rattled, the head again sent aloft, as if its hurler hopes it to achieve orbit. And now, to bring it all home.

The man raises a hand, makes a slight bow, stiffly sweeps his arm across his chest, then swings it back upward, shakily setting a tempo. A cough, and he urges the song out of his lungs. It’s the last song in the world. We’ll creep together, you and I….under a bloodless chrome sky…

Or, if you’d like:

One of the more intriguing Leon fragments, “We’ll Creep Together” was part of the middle section of the “Leon Takes Us Outside” suite, directly following “I’d Rather Be Chrome.” There are two circulating versions: the “Leon Takes” version, which is prefaced by Bowie’s “packet sniffers” speech and which is built on a loop of keyboard chords, and a slower, “jazz” version that was part of the “I Am With Name” suite, with Bowie sounding as though he’s free-styling over Mike Garson’s manic piano improvisations.

Recorded May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, with overdubs later in the year at Westside Studios, London (and possibly in New York, ca. January-March 1995). Two minutes of video footage of Bowie singing the “packet sniffer” version of “We’ll Creep Together” was released in September 1995 as part of Outside‘s “Electronic Press Kit.” (see above).

Top: Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) hosts Knowing Me, Knowing You in Paris, 1994.


OK Riot/ I’d Rather Be Chrome

January 16, 2013

cruelty in art

OK Riot/I’d Rather Be Chrome.
I’d Rather Be Chrome (different edit, with “Nathan Adler” dialogue).

The main problem with the Eighties was the Eighties. One of the first things [Eno and I] talked about when we got back together again…was the fact that both of us really hated the Eighties. It was such a nebulous, commerce-oriented period that we both felt invalidated. Brian went off to Malaysia for quite a long time and I went off to bed for a lot of that period.

David Bowie, interview by Seconds, August/September 1995.

I’m an atheist and the concept of god for me is all part of what I call the last illusion. The last illusion is that someone knows what’s going on.

Brian Eno, unpublished interview for New Route, 1992.

One Man Goes to the Wedding

On the first Saturday of June 1992, in the “American” church of Florence, Brian Eno was at the wedding of a man who he hadn’t seen in thirteen years. He was taken by how Bowie and Iman’s wedding seemed intended for a studio audience; it was a spectacle funded by Hello! magazine. So Eno turned correspondent. In the words of his biographer David Sheppard, Eno “spent time observing the body movements of Bowie and Iman as they worked the floor, creating a typically whimsical illustrative diagram in his notebook.” A month later, Eno, in London, gave a lecture called Perfume, Defence and David Bowie’s Wedding.

At the reception, Bowie mentioned to Eno that he’d written some instrumental pieces for the wedding, some of which eventually appeared on Black Tie White Noise. The groom commandeered the DJ’s system to play Eno some tapes (the other guests must have been delighted). Eno was intrigued: Bowie seemed to have awoken from a long slumber. “We were suddenly on the same course again,” Bowie later said. They agreed, tentatively, to work together.

There have been very few occasions where I feel there’s somebody who actually meets my requirements, that I feel is either intellectually or aesthetically aware of what I’m doing as Brian. He knows what I’m doing. No other fucker that I’ve worked with actually has a clue half the time…Brian is incredibly selfish, which I very much admire about him.

Bowie, interview by Moon Zappa, RayGun, 1995.

A year and a half passed. Eno was a beehive, producing and making a half-dozen albums, among other activities (lectures, exhibits, a new daughter). Bowie made Buddha of Suburbia. The latter convinced Eno that Bowie was serious about experimentation again—he even sent a letter of praise. Bowie and Eno occasionally mailed each other “mini-manifestos about what we would and wouldn’t do in the studio, so that at least when we went in we’d have a set of concepts that would enable us to avoid all the things we find boring and bland in popular music,” Bowie recalled to Interview.

So the album began as a negative: Eno and Bowie defining what they would not make, in the hopes of finding spaces left open. Eno, to Musician, said that “a big ‘won’t” in this case was, we don’t want to make another record of a bunch of songs. That just is not an interesting thing to do at the moment. There’s got to be a bigger landscape in play than that.”

But as they started work in early spring 1994, the pair, despite their revolutionary communiqués, fell back on tried methods. In particular, those of their last project, Lodger, whose random-at-gunpoint methodology—Eno using Oblique Strategies cards on the session musicians; making the band change chords whenever he pointed to a new one on a chalkboard—would also be the guiding force of Outside. For Bowie, it was 1980 again. “It was almost as though no time had been wedged in, like we were carrying on from the third album together.

Lodger had been released without much fuss, while Bowie and Eno would make far greater claims on Outside‘s behalf. The more “avant garde” cast of players on Outside also meant a receptive environment for Eno’s art pranks in the studio (well, except for Erdal Kizilcay, see below). But Bowie and Eno began already boxed in, spending much of their time trying to upend their and their public’s expectations. It was a seemingly impossible task. There was now an established method to make a “Bowie/Eno” album, and the two of them were dutifully following it.

dhshark

How would you describe your part in the music history?

Interfering. Mischief maker.

Bowie, interview by Stockholm TV, 1996.

At times they accepted the futility of being “new” again, and used their past as raw material. Bowie had been a experimental nostalgist on Buddha, after all. He had lived long enough, he’d made enough music, that he could call up his past as if it was a set of songs on a jukebox, and use a taste of some old edition of Bowie to season a track. And Eno had become a brand (he would give lectures to both the EC and Tony Blair on “cultural issues” in the mid-Nineties) and had started playing with brand identities. His work with U2 on Achtung Baby and Zooropa had used “Bowie and Eno in Berlin” as a genre, exploiting the images and the textures that the period invoked.*

Outside would be aptly named. While the album featured some of Bowie’s finest songs of his later years, they were hard to discern. The bizarre quasi-narrative that Bowie created to frame the record was a ruse, just David Lynchian window-dressing, but it also was a crazy quilt of Bowie’s various obsessions—Arthurian legend, Gnosticism, Aleister Crowley, etc.—a stream of associations flooding into the work, as if a dam had burst. Outside was defined by, and consumed with, interpretation and perception. It seemed to be nothing but a frame, a frame that housed smaller frames and circus-house mirrors. Its underlying tension (it’s Bowie’s most claustrophobic album, which is saying something) came from the collision of the public image of “Eno and Bowie” and the pair’s thwarted desires to erase themselves. So Bowie called himself an author, creating a set of characters in a narrative that intentionally made no sense, while Eno wrote a set of science fiction scenarios and made a group of rock musicians act them out.

Over 1994 and 1995, with the specter of Scott Walker’s impending new album looming over the mixing sessions (Bowie was convinced Walker would show him up, and arguably, with Tilt, Walker did—we’ll get to this on “The Motel”), Bowie and Eno kept upping the ante of their project, raising each other’s pretensions with each new interview.

So an album that had started as a radical experiment, a few weeks of identity games, art therapy and anti-jam sessions, wound up marketed as a hyper-text non-linear narrative, the first in an intended five-album series. Bowie and Eno would put out an album to commemorate each remaining year of the millennium; the later records might continue the Nathan Adler non-storyline that Bowie devised for Outside or he might devise other characters.** “It’ll be the Nicholas Nickelby of rock by the time it’s finished,” he told Moon Zappa. The series would distill the remaining days of the 20th Century, flatten and preserve the years as if they were dried flowers in the pages of a book. And the scheme would culminate, Bowie said, in a grand concert in 1999, possibly held at a Viennese opera house, possibly at the Salzburg Festival, possibly directed by Robert Wilson, possibly six or eight hours long (“pack a sandwich!” Bowie said in a few interviews). Then the world would end.

Two Men Go to the Asylum

see the shark how red his fins are

I’m a creature of eclecticism, aren’t I? I think I like complications. I like things that tend to be endless puzzles…I like thickly textured things.

Bowie, press conference for the European Outside tour, 1995.

None of this happened (well, maybe the world ended, and we weren’t told). Outside had the same fate as other Bowie projects, especially Diamond Dogs: grand inaugural claims, a compromised first product, a tour, which led to new interests, with Bowie then visibly growing uninterested in the old project, which he soon discarded. So all that exists of the colossal millennial dream of Bowie and Eno’s collective imagination is a 74-minute album, a few B-sides, a piece of fiction Bowie wrote for Q magazine that was recycled as liner notes and, marginally, a few music videos.

Could they really have pulled it off? I can’t imagine so, and I can’t imagine Bowie and Eno wanted to. Outside is just the ticket stub from a conceptual art project that Bowie and Eno carried out in the press during 1995 and 1996. Much like Bowie’s detective story, the millennial project was mainly left to the reader or listener’s imagination, where it would fare better than if Bowie and Eno had been on stage for eight hours in Vienna. The sheer amount of information Bowie said he was processing, his apparent attempt to collocate seemingly every thought he’d had in the Nineties, made any attempt to turn his public effusions into art a Sisyphean task.

But go back to 1994. Bowie and Eno began by crossing off what they wouldn’t do. What were the positive inputs? (“We were looking for grist for the mill,” Bowie said.) For Bowie, there were a host of ideas he was playing with, which we’ll get into in future entries. These included: his fascination with the growing appeal of piercing and tattooing, how that reflected a growing “tribalism” and how it was a domestic version of the extremities of the body artists, who trafficked in mutilation and death as performance art (something that had intrigued Bowie since the Seventies, see “Joe the Lion”); the collapse of cultural “narratives,” usurped by an ever-broadening chaotic stream of information; his love of Twin Peaks. And his sense that the West, in the Nineties, was entering into a period of cultural binging and purging, a shedding of skins before the millennium, with a taste for violent sex and stylish murder—hence the popularity of serial killer movies and TV shows, the paranoia of everything from Oliver Stone’s JFK to The X-Files. Bowie predicted that the 2000s would be a calmer, more reflective period, which perhaps it was for him.

out of sight

Eno shared another of Bowie’s hobbyhorses: “outsider” art. Again, this wasn’t anything new: Eno’s work in the Seventies with the Portsmouth Sinfonia, a symphony of players who’d never touched their instruments before, had been a variation of this. But in early 1994, the two of them, in their first act as collaborators, went to an artist’s asylum in Vienna. This was the Maria Gugging Psychiatric Clinic, whose therapy included housing mentally ill patients with artistic ambitions in one wing, where they were allowed to paint the walls, couches and even trees.

Bowie spent two days sketching the artists, while Eno recorded their conversations. For Bowie and Eno, these were the true late Twentieth Century artists: people making art without any knowledge of contemporary styles and tastes, directly channeling their internal temperaments onto canvases or walls, working seemingly without ambition or influence. They were artists who, in some cases, literally did not know who they were, and as such were inspirational. “We felt an exhilaration watching them work,” Bowie said.

Six Men Play Games

mereenfant

It occurred to me that this raw material was, in its own chaotic and perilous way, as much a part of their work as the songs that would finally grow out of it.

Eno, on his work with James.

Another template Eno used for the first sessions was what he’d done with the Mancunian band James in the summer of 1993. Over six weeks at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios, Eno set up a split-screen creative process. During the day, James recorded their official major-label album, Laid, whose title track would become a worldwide hit single. Then late at night, in a second studio, Eno pushed the band to make what he called a “shadow album,” where James would improvise without being given any sense of direction. Their lead singer Tim Booth, towards the end of the sessions, would add first-take vocals to a set of tracks that Eno chose and quickly mixed.*

Now the goal was to do nothing but a “shadow album,” a dark mirror of a commercial album Bowie never made. Eno crafted an immersive role-playing group improvisation. He brought his Oblique Strategies cards out, but he also devised characters for all musicians and engineers to play, giving them names, tastes, habits and back stories, all of which they weren’t to share with the other players (see here).

There was some resistance to this from Erdal Kizilcay, who was in the position of Carlos Alomar on Lodger-–a professional musician and longtime Bowie collaborator who resented the antics of Eno who, in Kizilcay’s words, “couldn’t play four bars.” But Gabrels and Mike Garson were inspired by the games (Bowie: “With Garson, for example, we could just say: “Mike, be yourself,” and it’s so nutty that there was no need to set parameters“), while the drummer, Sterling Campbell, was a strong and supple enough player that he gave any random, bizarre improvisation some needed heft.

[Eno and I] had an idea that we wanted to create some kind of situation that never really happened, but film it as though it had happened, document an event which never took place.

Bowie, press conference, 1995.

So the sextet (Eno mainly keeping to the control booth) started recording in March 1994, working for about three weeks in Mountain Studios. Gabrels came to Switzerland a week early to reconnect with Bowie, who he hadn’t seen since the Black Tie sessions. Gabrels thought he would be doing some preliminary writing with Bowie as well, but Bowie was more interested in having long conversations, and allegedly had prepared nothing for the sessions. On the official first day of recording, an overall-clad Bowie greeted the players and handed them tools—paintbrushes, wallpaper hangers, carpets, canvases. Before playing anything, they would first redecorate the studio. Each player would get a corner of their own: Bowie turned his into an atelier, painting and sketching the players for days before he sang a note.

Eno ran the sessions like a man trying to break children of bad habits. He disrupted the jams whenever he thought they were growing conventional, using “strategies designed to stop the thing from becoming over-coherent.” What happens when four musicians come together in a room and jam? They always start playing the blues, Eno said. Eno was a dedicated enemy of the blues. So he had everyone wear headphones, through which he would pipe in samples of clocks, words looped from French radio broadcasts and songs from Motown tapes, all while the musicians played.

dhdisc

I see no way we can go back, philosophically, to a world of absolutes. Which I feel very comfortable with and I always have done….I think seeing the problems that historians themselves have with revisionism of history it seems almost nonsensical for the layman to even bother to try and analyze history any more in a straight narrative way. In a way history almost ceases to exist—possibly we can’t really entertain the idea of a future in the same way. Which may be not a bad thing.

Bowie, interview with Ian Penman, Esquire, 1995.

The peak moment came, Bowie said, on 12 March 1994 (or 20 March, according to another interview). The band improvised for three and a half hours while Bowie, with pages of random-generated lines spread out across a table before him, channeled a series of characters. He tried out a new accent, a new perspective, every few minutes, reading stray lines from various sheets, tumbling out words. Out of this “blindingly orgiastic” (Bowie’s later effusion) session came the core of what would be Outside—some of the music, and most of all the origin of the various characters Bowie would devise for the album’s narrative, like the detective Nathan Adler and the victim Baby Grace Blue. The work soon became known as Leon, after one of Bowie’s characters.

According to Bowie and Garson, anywhere from 22 to 35 hours of material came out these sessions. It’s unclear how far along the sequencing and editing of Leon went, but the avant-garde wing of the group, Gabrels and Eno (and possibly Garson), pushed for some version of the sessions to be released quickly. (Gabrels said the final Leon was around four hours in length.) Eno proposed putting a two- or three-CD album out without a name, like Bowie’s “Pallas Athena” single. Gabrels said one model could be Prince’s Black Album (or his later-to-come Crystal Ball): a quasi-bootleg, an artillery barrage of music, offered without explanation.

Instead, the Leon moment passed. Bowie kept working on the tapes, calling back Gabrels to Switzerland every other month throughout 1994. Perhaps today Bowie would’ve just seeded the complete Leon sessions on a torrent, but in 1994 he needed a record label again. And he found himself with a set of tapes that, while filled with ominous moods and brilliant moments, were commercially unreleasable. As with Tin Machine II, Bowie spent a year trying to get a label interested in his tapes, and in early 1995 he went back in the studio and recorded a set of more “palatable” songs (almost half of the final album, including his revised “Strangers When We Meet”) to sweeten the pot.

So Leon became Outside. In his 1995 diary, Eno complained that Bowie had cluttered up the songs too much. Gabrels would also publicly regret what he considered an unfortunate compromise of one of Bowie’s most radical works. “It would have been a very serious musical statement (and maybe pissed off more people than Tin Machine),” he recalled on his website a decade later. “Gary Oldman and I used to commiserate on how your best stuff….your most real and honest work seems to be what ends up on the cutting room floor. Uh huh.”

And One Gumshoe Gets Shod

92dam

Happily (or not), we have some evidence to examine Eno and Gabrels’ claims. Some of the Leon tapes leaked in 2003 (Gabrels speculated they were stolen from Westlake Studios, where they were mixed in late 1994) and have been scattered across the Internet ever since, existing in fragments. The two best assessments of Leon are at the Illustrated DB Discography site, which lists the contents of the complete 70-minute leaked Leon tape, and a sequencing by the blog Russman’s Records. Russman proposes, and I agree, that at some point Leon appeared to have been sequenced as a two-part work. The first group was a series of discrete songs, while the second was a 22-minute suite, allegedly called “Inside.”(This may be what Gabrels once referred to as an “operatic” work that was part of Leon.) The first section of the suite, “I Am With Name,” was hived off to become a track on the official Outside, as we’ll see.

[Update: After hearing the Leon tape, I can instead say that Leon (at least one proposed disc of it) was actually three suites, of roughly 20 to 28 minutes in length apiece. Annotations on the “Leon Takes Us Outside” suite here, “The Enemy Is Fragile” suite here and “I Am With Name” here.]

“OK Riot/I’d Rather Be Chrome,” the centerpiece of the “Leon Takes Us Outside” suite, is a fairly coherent song by the standards of Leon. Bowie sings it in the “Forties gumshoe” voice of Nathan Adler, who would be the narrator of Outside, and it opens like the first scene of an SF noir film. It was the night of an OK riot. (The ancestor of Adler’s voice was one of Bowie’s vocal guises that briefly appears on “Sweet Thing”: if you wannit, BOISE.”) Adler recalls Ramona A. Stone: she swanned along the street, with her wavy hair and her research greens. Bowie later said that Adler represented, for him, a dying piece of the 20th Century, a small figure of resistance to the millennial tide. Adler was a man who’d once existed in a recognizable narrative structure (in this case, a detective serial) and who was trying to solve a crime using his old methods, which no longer applied to the chaotic environment of Oxford Town in 1999.

Still, this was a perspective Bowie offered long after Adler first appeared on Leon. After a minute of the “OK riot” sequence, Bowie in his Adler voice, moves into a chorus in which he seems to be calling out for mechanical conversion, singing  in a sharp, barking voice. I’d rather be CHROME! Than stay here at HOME! Gabrels, in the second verse, plays a riff that calls back to Television’s “Glory,” while Garson’s piano slowly increases in tempo, becoming a series of spikes. Campbell, constantly shifting his patterns throughout, at one point plays something akin to a reggae “one drop” pattern (hitting bass and snare on the third beat of each measure); he keeps the group at their labors like a man supervising a prison gang.

Adler mutters in disgust, as the sketch he tried to fill in starts to flake away. Leon, can ya hear? An urban tribe appears on the street in the distance: “they’re black and white and LOUD!” Applause. The song disintegrates: Gabrels plays solemn arpeggios, Garson plays frenetic chords, as if he’s following a metronome whose pace a prankster keeps jacking up. Then there’s a jump cut into…

Recorded May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and Westside Studios, London. Unreleased.

* The early Nineties is when the “Berlin” Bowie albums were canonized (and became an influence for a new generation—viz. Trent Reznor, allegedly listening to Low daily). While the albums had been indifferently reviewed and had sold relatively poorly, the release of the trilogy on CD by Ryko, in summer 1991, kicked off their rehabilitation. By decade’s end Low had supplanted Ziggy Stardust as the “top classic” Bowie album in critics’ lists.

** Though the later records are simply rumors, consensus has it that the second one was to be called either 2. Inside or 2. Contamination. That the third was to be titled 3. Afrikaans is an unconfirmed bit of apocrypha.

*** This record, called Wah-Wah, would be a sore point for the band. Booth wanted to rerecord some of his vocals and there were arguments as to what to do with the album (release it as a bonus disc to Laid or, as happened, put it out as an ill-received sequel record in 1994).

Sources: I am greatly indebted to the magnificent Bassman’s David Bowie Page, which has transcriptions seemingly of every major interview Bowie gave in 1995. Also, thanks to Ian McDuffie for some help with Leon.

Top to bottom: Damien Hirst, Away From the Flock, 1994 (in the Saatchi Gallery, London); Two Similar Swimming Forms in Endless Motion (Broken), 1993; The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, 1991;  Out of Sight, Out of Mind, 1991; Mother and Child Divided, 1993; Philip (The Twelve Disciples), 1994; She Wanted to Find the Most Perfect Form of Flying, 1992.


“Heroes”

May 11, 2011

“Heroes.”
“Heroes” (single edit).
“Helden” (German single, 1977).
“Héros” (French single, 1977).
“Heroes” (broadcast, “The Marc Bolan Show,” 1977).
“Heroes” (broadcast, “Top of the Pops,” 1977).
“Heroes” (live, 1978).
“Heroes” (live, 1983).
“Heroes” (Live Aid, 1985).
“Heroes” (live in Berlin, 1987).
“Heroes” (live, 1990).
“Heroes” (with Mick Ronson and Queen, Freddie Mercury Tribute, 1992).
“Heroes” (live, acoustic, 1996).
“Heroes” (live, 1997).
“Heroes” (live, 2000).
“Heroes” (live, Concert for New York City, 2001).
“Heroes” (live, 2002).
“Heroes” (live, 2003).
“Heroes” (final performance (to date), June 2004).

Berlin, Bowie observes, reflecting upon the environments in which he has produced his last two albums, is a city made up of bars for sad disillusioned people to get drunk in.

“…It’s hard to sing “Let’s all think of peace and love… ” “No, David, why did you say that? That is a stupid remark.” Because that’s exactly where you should arrive…You arrive at a sense of compassion. The title track of “Heroes” is about facing that kind of reality and standing up to it. The only heroic act one can fucking well pull out of the bag in a situation like that is to get on with life from the very simple pleasure of remaining alive, despite every attempt being made to kill you.”

Allan Jones, “Goodbye to Ziggy and All That,” Melody Maker, 29 October 1977.

1. Regions (Nothing Will Drive Them Away)

“Heroes” in the United States, and to a lesser extent in the UK, was a failure. It got only marginal commercial airplay in the US in the ’70s and ’80s (the single even didn’t crack the top 100), with most Americans likely unaware “Heroes” existed until Bowie’s performance of it on Live Aid, if even then. “Heroes” gradually became a global Bowie standard, a consensus masterpiece, but it’s also a late revision to the canon.* In the US, at least, “Heroes” was the Bowie song that was famous somewhere else.

That was Europe (even Bowie noted that “Heroes” “seems to have a special resonance” in Europe, and he certainly tried to sell the single there, cutting German and French versions of the song). Maybe its motorik-inspired groove, indebted to Neu! and Kraftwerk, or Bowie’s at-times declamatory, harsh singing just sounded more familiar, or maybe “Heroes” tapped into something broader, an ominous general mood. In 1977, Europe’s fate was the property of others. Even the continent’s flash point, Berlin, the alleged centerpiece of the Cold War, was irrelevant. If there was to be a war, West Berlin would fall to the Soviets in a day and it likely would be annihilated soon afterward. All of the pointed decadence in West Berlin, all of the parades and drills in the Eastern half, seemed pantomimes by actors out of work.

There’s a lassitude, an echoing, fading grandeur, in the sound of “Heroes”: its dragging beat; its backdrop of squalls and what sound like wayward radio signals;  its lyric, set at the continent’s scarred heart; Bowie’s extravagant, metal-edged vocal; Robert Fripp’s feedback ostinato. “Heroes” is Bowie at his most empathic and at his most desperate, a wish-chant that offers, at best, some tiny regency for the spirit. Bowie, who had once had filled his songs with starmen and calamity children, seems reduced here to a minor scale, despite the talk of kings and dolphins. Any hope “Heroes” offers is meager: we can be better than we are. Only sometimes, and not for long.

2. Reductions (I Drink All the Time)

Interviewer: I remember one lyric [of yours]: “all the nobody people, all the somebody people. I need them.”

DB: Yes, well, that character definitely did, ’cause his world was exploding…That was definitely a character. That was Ziggy Stardust. He was the archetype needing-people rock star.

David Bowie, press conference in Holland, October 1977.

Around 1975, the writer Greil Marcus noticed the rise of “survivors.” He heard the phrase used in TV shows (the title often bestowed upon middle-aged actors promoting a new project), in politics (“Reagan was a survivor,” as per Lou Cannon’s bio), in films and particularly in rock music, where “survivors” were suddenly inescapable: “Soul Survivor,” Street Survivors, “Survival” (the O’Jays single and the Wailers record), “I Will Survive,” with the culmination being a band actually called Survivor.

I grew obsessed with the phenomenon, Marcus wrote at the decade’s end. I seemed to me to speak for everything empty, tawdry, and stupid about the seventies, to stand for every cheat, for every failure of nerve. Language was being debased. “Survivor” had once meant someone who had endured a horror that had killed a great many others—a concentration camp survivor, a plane crash survivor. Now the word applied to anyone remotely competent at living (Queen’s first hit, “Keep Yourself Alive,” could’ve been the motto of the ’70s).

There was something off putting about the sudden prominence of “survivors,” of odes to the simple life and of people being called “heroes” for the mildest of reasons. It was as if, in the decades after WWII, people had come to want too much, had attempted too great a height, and they were now being herded back down, their ambitions reduced to the scope of mere living. Going to work, paying your bills, raising your children, hitting 30, enduring an awful disease—these became “heroic” acts. Everyone alive became a survivor. Common life, as its radical prospects diminished, was exalted.

Bowie’s “Heroes” could seem part of this reduction, an ancestor to the wave of “you’re MY hero” kitsch of the late 20th Century, of Mariah Carey’s “Hero” and “Wind Beneath My Wings,” and it certainly has been interpreted as such.** What saves Bowie’s song from cheap sentimentality is its coldness, the sense that it’s been compromised from the start. We can be kings, we can be heroes, nothing will hurt us, the singer offers at the start of each verse, but he soon backtracks, equivocating, willing to settle for less. We can be us, he sings at last, his voice hissing out the last syllable: could we even venture that?

When Bowie first saw the lovers who inspired his song’s climactic verse, sitting on a bench by the Berlin Wall, he had wondered why they had chosen such a grim place. Did the pair feel shame at what they were doing? Were they meeting where they figured no one would see them? Or were they just bored or restless, pawns playing at being rooks?

The latter wouldn’t be unusual, as West Berlin was where one could play at life. Bowie would describe his Berlin period, which ended in late 1977, as the time when he fell to earth. West Berlin was “a womb,” he said, “a therapeutic city, with a real street level.” Bowie often myth-tinted his doings and so his Berlin years became an exile with the common people: “I had to go down the road and buy food in a shop,” he incredulously told an interviewer in late ’77. So the myth of “Bowie in Berlin,” who lived in a working-class Turkish neighborhood (not quite) and drank in workingmen’s bars unrecognized (not really—only once during the Hansa sessions, when Tony Visconti cropped Bowie’s hair, was Bowie able to walk around without attracting much notice). Still, it was a potent myth: Berlin as the place one went to be a human. Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and Faraway So Close!, where angels become mortals in Cold War and post-Cold War Berlin, have a trace of Bowie in them.

It’s a shame that “Heroes” is best known in its maimed form, the 7″ single edit, which lops off about two minutes of the track so that the song begins with its third verse (“I wish you could swim”). It’s the version used for Stanley Dorfman’s promo film, included on ChangesBowie and the version Bowie would perform most often on stage.

The edit weakens the song. It’s not just that the buildup to the last two verses is now too brief (the Bowie vocal fireworks start at 1:23 in the single, but don’t appear until 3:16 in the original), but the lyric’s also thrown out of whack. The original song opens with a grandiose claim: “I, I will be king” (the wording deliberately stilted, calling back to ’60s pop dramas like “I Who Have Nothing”). Then in the second verse, the artifice suddenly falls away:

And you, you can be mean
And I, I drink all the time.
‘Cause we’re lovers, and that is a fact
Yes we’re lovers, and that is that.

The intimacy of these lines, sung by Bowie close to the mic, in his lower register (and obscured in the mix, so the first line sounds like “you could be me”) are key to the song. This verse is the reality: a pair of lovers trapped in routine, seeing no way out. A man and a woman face each other across a table, reading each other’s faces for signs, their only freedom left in dreams. It’s all in the way Bowie sings “that is that,” quietly, with no emotion, a settled fact in a settled life.

This is what makes the later verses, which, starting with the fourth (the repeat of “I will be king”), are sung in Bowie’s “epic” register (see below), all the sadder. The singer, growing increasingly desperate, can barely keep his fantasies from blurring together. I will be king! You will be queen!, he nearly shrieks, while the following line brings the ominous “nothing will drive them away.” Who are “them”? Is it some further delusion that their love is so precious someone would want to kill it?

Until the last verse, the song’s been abstract, its setting could be anywhere (like the empty backdrop in Bowie’s promo film for it). Then the lovers are suddenly by the Wall, the guns firing above them: they’re brave, and could be about to die. Bowie sings the lines in one sustained, howling scream. It’s cathartic as it is baffling. Are the guards shooting at them, or is their meeting so insignificant that the guards don’t even notice them? Some have interpreted the lines as meaning the lovers are separated by the Wall, like some Pyramus and Thisbe in Berlin, others that the pair is trying to escape East Berlin (but then why is “all the shame on the other side,” where they’re trying to flee?). I’d say the details don’t really matter: the Wall verse is as much a fantasy as being a king for a day or swimming like a dolphin. It’s the dream of someone in the muddle of life, wishing that his empty days and his shabby love affair had some grandeur, finding dignity even in tyranny.

3. Reconnoiterings (Nothing Will Keep Us Together)

“Heroes” began out of pique. Bowie, irritated by Iggy Pop scrapping much of his original music for “Success,” was still toying with a G-C-D chord sequence and a vocal melody, reworking the piece with Brian Eno in rehearsals. Eno soon wanted to call it “Heroes,” as the song, even in embryo, had a rousing, propulsive feel (also, “Heroes” would also reference Neu!’s “Hero,” (from Neu! 75), complementing the Kraftwerk tribute “V-2 Schneider”).

At Hansa Studios, Bowie tried out “Heroes,” existing mainly in fragments, with his regular band: Dennis Davis, Carlos Alomar and George Murray. In a few hours they had built up the song, Alomar working out guitar riffs that would become the track’s underlying rhythmic hooks (like the twining, dancing three-part figure that plays over lines like “nothing will keep us together”). “Heroes” had a “plodding rhythm and tempo,” Bowie later said, which was intentional: it was another reworking of “I’m Waiting For the Man,” a song that had obsessed Bowie for ten years. Eno and Bowie, considering the ’70s German bands the natural heirs to the Velvet Underground, had taken the VU drone and translated it into motorik.

Eno’s main contribution was his EMS synthesizer, which plays throughout the track, its oscillators reduced to a low frequency rate (Visconti estimated five cycles per second) and using a noise filter: the result, Visconti said, was the “shuddering, chattering effect [that] slowly builds up and gets more and more obvious towards the end.”

As with many of Bowie’s songs on “Heroes”, the title song’s foundation is simple: five verses, some expanded with a six-bar chorus tag, and finally a refrain of sorts to close things out. “Heroes,” in D major, is primarily the three-chord sequence proposed for “Success”: the verses (and the intro/solo sections) move between D and G major, with the arrival of C major (on, for example, “nothing, nothing will keep us together”) and a two-bar foray into A minor and E minor (on “beat them” and “forever”), briefly disrupting the pattern.

(“Heroes” appears to be in the “D mixolydian” mode—basically, Bowie drops what would be the dominant (V) chord, A major, and replaces it with A minor (and follows it up with E minor). So he’s essentially swapping chords from D major’s parallel minor, D minor, then quickly shuttling back to the major tonic chord, D (so the verse’s climactic sequence of Am-Em-D is v-ii-I)).

It’s unclear if “Heroes” was originally intended as an instrumental. Eno has said he thought it was, and that Robert Fripp’s guitar work was crafted with this in mind, hence Fripp playing all the way through the song.

As it turned out, Fripp’s guitar became a high chorus to Bowie’s multi-gated vocal. On Eno’s Another Green World or other “Heroes” tracks like “Joe the Lion,” Fripp was the variable, breaking open songs, his guitar coming in like a thunderclap. On “Heroes,” he’s there from the beginning, his guitar hanging in the upper atmosphere throughout, singing to itself; his feedback-laden lines suggesting the arrival of a grand melody that never quite comes. It’s a continual promise, never fulfilled.

While most guitarists that took on “Heroes” had to use an Ebow to get Fripp’s sound, playing a sustained run of A notes, Fripp had worked out the feedback patterns on foot, literally. Standing in Hansa’s Studio 2, his guitar routed through Eno’s EMS synthesizer, Fripp marked with tape the places on the studio floor where he could get a feedback loop on any given note. So four feet away from his amp was an A, three feet away was a G, and so on. Fripp stepped and swayed through the song, his sound owed to a simple cartography.

Fripp ran through three takes, and the trebly nature of his playing (further distorted live by Eno’s EMS) meant that each solo on its own sounded thin and wavering. So Tony Visconti blended all three together, eventually bouncing them down to a single track, to achieve what Visconti called “a dreamy, floaty effect.”

As “Heroes” developed, Visconti further emphasized the pulsating drone by tweaking the rhythm tracks. Typically kick drum and snare drums are put in the forefront of a rock mix, but now Visconti buried Dennis Davis’ kick and instead brought up the bassline (played both by Murray’s bass and on one of Alomar’s guitar tracks), so that the latter bolstered the shuddering feel of Fripp’s guitar tracks and Eno’s low-oscillating synthesizer.

So much of “Heroes” is owed to improvisations. An intended horn section (at the start of the second verse) was replaced by a “brass” noise on Bowie’s Chamberlin (“it sounds more like a weedy little violin patch,” Visconti later said), while the Alomar/Murray basslines had been originally considered as string parts. When overdubbing percussion Bowie and Visconti even made do without a cowbell, instead using an empty tape canister that Visconti thwacked with a drumstick (it first appears at 2:55). The only other percussion is a tambourine that crops up in the final verse (at 3:56) and runs through the remainder of the track.

4. Reverberations (You Will Be Queen)

Though the backing track was finished, Bowie waited for weeks to write a lyric, then patched it together in one go. Listening to playback in his headphones, Bowie would write a line or two and swiftly get his vocal down on tape. Visconti would rewind to where Bowie had left off, then he’d write and record another line. (It’s in part why Bowie’s singing on “Heroes” doesn’t flow as much as it seems like a series of dramatic pauses and sudden stabs of phrases.)

Where the lyric of “Station to Station” had been a profusion of imagery hauled out of Bowie’s inventory of obsessions, “Heroes” is far more minimal, its words simple and precisely chosen. Bowie drew from two main sources, both European, both postwar(s). One was the short story “A Grave For A Dolphin” by the Italian aristocrat Alberto Denti Di Pirajno, which details a doomed affair between an Italian soldier and an Somalian girl during the Second World War (it inspired the “dolphins can swim” verse).*** (Bowie also nicked the occasional line from elsewhere: “I will be king, you will be queen” is from the English folk song “Lavender’s Blue,” which Bowie would sing onstage sometimes as a prelude to “Heroes.”)

Bowie had also been taken with an Otto Mueller painting he had seen in Die Brücke Museum, Liebespaar Zwischen Gartenmauern (Lovers Between Garden Walls), which Mueller had painted as World War I was ending. Bowie transplanted Meuller’s image of two lovers embracing by a high stone wall, placing them before the Wall that Bowie saw every day from Hansa’s control room window. As legend has it, Bowie was looking out that very window when he spied Visconti (who was married at the time, to Mary Hopkin) and the singer Antonia Maass embracing by the Wall. At once he had found his lyric’s resolution, a snapshot of love and bravery set against the concrete madness of governments, despite it being a shabby act, a man cheating on his wife. (The story, essential to the legend of “Heroes,” might not be true.****)

With Fripp, who usually provided the dramatics, instead working in the chorus line, it was left to Bowie to provide the contrast to the track’s overall stasis. The drama had to come with the vocal, and Bowie planned his singing as though he meant to take an entrenched position from a rival force.

Visconti set up three Neumann microphones in Studio 2, placing the first, a valve U47, directly in front of Bowie, about nine inches away from his face (using “fairly heavy compression, because I knew beforehand that he really was going to shout”). The second, a U87 stood about 15 to 20 feet away from Bowie and the third, another U87, was at the end of the room, some 50 feet away. The latter two mics had electronic gates: they would be switched off until triggered by Bowie hitting a certain volume. Once they were turned on, they would capture the sound of the entire room ringing with Bowie’s voice. (This also meant that Bowie, once he had triggered the other mics, had to go at full blast to keep them on, hence the histrionic tone of his singing—he sounds unhinged at times.)

The vocal was done in three takes (Visconti said most of the final vocal is from the last take, with a few punch-ins to correct stray notes). Bowie immediately moved to recording two tracks of backing vocals with Visconti (hence the faint Brooklyn accent you hear on “I remember” and “wall”), harmonizing in thirds and fifths below the lead vocal. The backing chorus, which generally comes in on the last note of each lead vocal phrase, is the last essential ingredient of the song—until now the singer’s been alone in his fantasies, so having another voice back him up adds a sense of reassurance at last. From the first line Bowie wrote and sang, to the last punch-in edit, it had taken about five hours.

5. Reputations (All the Shame Was On the Other Side)

For whatever reason, for whatever confluence of circumstances, Tony, Brian and I created a powerful, anguished, sometimes euphoric language of sounds. In some ways, sadly, they really captured, unlike anything else in that time, a sense of yearning for a future that we all knew would never come to pass.

David Bowie, Uncut interview, 1999.

Bowie promoted “Heroes” across two continents, made a promo film, talked to any interviewer who would have him, but the single stiffed, only reaching #24 in the UK and not cracking the Billboard 100 in the US. “Heroes” soon took on another life, becoming a favorite on tour, and Bowie eventually would tailor it for grand moments—closing his Live Aid set with it, playing it in his tribute to Freddie Mercury and his tribute to the dead of 9/11. Of course “Heroes” has also been used to sell mobile phones, software, digital film, life insurance, football matches, HBO’s Latin American programming, hockey and rock star video games; it’s promoted a dopey comic book TV series, while a cover by the Wallflowers was used in an abysmal ’90s Godzilla remake.

None of this has reduced the original “Heroes.” One could argue it’s even strengthened the song. It seems to have been intended as a gift, crafted to be dispersed, to be carried in the air, used by whoever would have it.

At the Hurricane Festival in Scheeßel (the story ends back in Germany, as it seemingly had to), on 25 June 2004, Bowie closed his set with a restrained “Heroes.” He did a few other standards as encores, then he collapsed backstage, suffering what appears to have been a heart attack. Hurricane was the sudden end of the tour, and in retrospect seems the close of Bowie’s professional life. He’s appeared a couple more times on stage (last in 2006), but Hurricane was the terminus: there’ve been no more tours, no more records since.

So closing what could be his last show with “Heroes” seems fitting and just. “Heroes,” the most generous of Bowie’s songs, and possibly the saddest, sounds like Bowie’s farewell, fallen out of time.

Resources

Recorded at Hansa by the Wall, July-August 1977. Released as a single in September 1977 (RCA PB 1121, #24 UK), as were “Helden” (RCA PB 9168)—some argue it’s the definitive version of the song, and Bowie’s vocal is pretty tremendous (“ICH!!! ICH BIN DANN KOENIG!”)—and the French “Héros,” (RCA PB 9167), the dud of the bunch. Performed in every Bowie tour since 1978.

Along with the usual suspects in the “sources” list at the right side of the page (esp. Trynka, Pegg and Buckley), of great help for this entry was Phil Sutcliffe’s article on “Heroes” for Q, August 2005; Visconti’s essential interview with Sound on Sound, 2004, and his interview for the great, lost documentary Rock & Roll (1995: episode 7: “The Wild Side”); Mat Snow’s “Making ‘Heroes'” in Mojo‘s 60 Years of Bowie special (2007); guitar tabs in Play Guitar With David Bowie, which unfortunately is just for the single cut. Marcus’ “survivor” piece is his wonderful “Rock Death in the 1970s: A Sweepstakes,” Village Voice, 17 December 1979 (later collected in Fascist Bathroom).

Photos, top to bottom: Sibylle Bergemann, “Berlin, Palast der Republik,” 1978; Mueller, Liebespaar Zwischen Gartenmauern (1919);  “Englehaftetraumstoffe,” “Berlin, Ost 1977”; John Spooner, “Berlin Wall, 1978”; Unknown photog. (Landesbildstelle), East Berlin border at Niederkirchner Strasse, January 1977; Christian Simonpietri, “Eno, Fripp and Bowie,” Hansa Studios, ca. July 1977; “Klaus183,” Berlin Wall, 1978; Masayoshi Sukita, cover of “Heroes” (referencing Heckel’s Roquairol (1917) (as was the cover of The Idiot); “Helden” sleeve, 1977.

* In the US, its closest counterpart would be “The Man Who Sold The World”: a relative obscurity until the mid-1990s, now a Bowie standard.

** Most recently, and most terribly, in the version by the X Factor contestants, who took it to #1 in the UK last year (imagine if “Stars on 45” had charted higher than any actual Beatles singles).

*** Of course, Bowie would eventually marry a Somalian woman. He referenced the Denti novel in his introduction to her I Am Iman (2001).

**** Tobias Rüther, in his Helden: David Bowie und Berlin (2008), interviewed Maass, who claimed the lines weren’t about her and Visconti, as “Heroes” had been completed before their affair started, and that Bowie couldn’t have seen them together anyhow. Someone should do a feminist reading of the song—the male gaze (Bowie), the male protagonist (Visconti) and the oft-forgotten woman who claims that none of the story is true.


Warszawa

March 15, 2011

Warszawa.
Warszawa (live, 1978).
Warszawa (Philip Glass, “Low Symphony,” 1993).
Warszawa (live, 2002).

I’d like to thank Warsaw’s Agata Pyzik for her generous help on this entry.

Your lightdarkblue morning light, O city.
…You run through the streets all night,
sensational hi-fi is still blasting through the housing blocks,
and the city cowers, it pastes its glass buildings
onto the future, but it’s getting bogged down, sinking, vanishing
into the mud…

Andrzej Sosnowski, “Warszawa” (collected in Lodgings, 1997).

Before he recorded “Warszawa,” Bowie had been in the city once in his life, for a few hours. He had gone through Poland in May 1973, traveling from Moscow to West Berlin, but he hadn’t left the train (with good reason: at some point in Poland an overzealous train official, demanding his papers, had tried to push into Bowie’s compartment). In April 1976, Bowie and Iggy Pop took a train from Zurich to Moscow, again via Poland. As per Paul Trynka’s bio of Iggy Pop: They saw towns still pockmarked with bullet holes and a landscape scarred by unrepaired bomb craters; drawing alongside a goods train in Warsaw, they witnessed a worker unloading coal piece by piece in the gray, freezing sleet.

In Warsaw, the train was kept for a few hours at Dworzec Gdański (Gdansk Railway Station), so Bowie went for a walk in Warsaw’s Żoliborz district, in what was then called Plac Komuny Paryskiej (Paris Commune Square) (it’s since been rechristened its original name, Plac Wilsona). Years later, Bowie’s Polish fans would recount his walk, almost step by step. Bowie stopped at a record shop and bought a few LPs by the folk song and dance ensemble Śląsk, one of which featured Stanisław Hadyna’s composition “Helokanie.”

Of these scant impressions Bowie made a world, or at least a city. He named the six-minute-plus brooding hymn that opens Low‘s “night” side not after Moscow, a city of which he’d had some experience, nor Berlin, his future home, but Warsaw, a city that he had only glimpsed. Maybe Warsaw was just an emptier canvas, or perhaps something about the city resonated Bowie during his brief walk. He had just left Los Angeles, a city of professional dreams; he had grown up in a London experiencing a brief second childhood; he had made his art out of fabrications—imaginary rock singers, gleefully violent comic book dystopias. Warsaw had little of this. What Warsaw had was the iron residue of history: it was nearly leveled during the war, a great part of its population murdered—in death camps, in failed uprisings, in reprisals. For Bowie, it was a fallen city, a conquered city, a city left to the spies and the winter.

One of Italo Calvino’s invisible cities is Eusapia, “whose inhabitants have constructed an identical copy of their city, underground,” where they bring all their corpses “to continue their former activities.” Slowly, imperceptibly, the dead begin to alter their surroundings, thus forcing the living to continually change their own city so as to retain the mirror image. They say that this has not just now begun to happen: actually it was the dead who built the upper Eusapia, in the image of their city. They say that in the twin cities there is no longer any way of knowing who is alive and who is dead.

The song that Bowie named after Warsaw begins with a slow tolling, the sound of a funeral bell as played by a child at a piano.

Brian Eno often was working alone in the last weeks of the Low sessions at Château d’Hérouville. Bowie had gone to Paris for a court case (he was breaking with his manager). Before he left, he asked Eno to write a slow piece, something with a “very emotive, almost religious feel to it.”

Eno heard Tony Visconti’s four-year-old son on the studio piano, pressing three consecutive white keys: A, B and C. He came in the room, sat down next to the boy at the piano, and played along with him, finishing the melody. This would become the main “Warszawa” theme, and Eno entwined it into a larger structure, one (again) formed through deliberate randomness.

As with “Art Decade,” Eno structured the piece to a series of metronomic clicks (in this case 430), each click numbered on another track, so that a chord change or a new bassline would be pegged to a random number. This was meant to free Eno from compositional crutches, from the routine of bar strictures and beats. And as with “Art Decade,” despite this deliberate randomness, “Warszawa”‘s layout is easily discernible and even rather traditional. It’s in four distinct sections (in generally 4/4 time): an opening 24-bar “overture” (0:00 to 1:17), a 48-bar “theme” (1:17 to 3:46), a 32-bar “chorus” (Bowie’s vocal, 3:47 to 5:25) and finally a 16-bar repeat of the theme.

The opening, in A major, begins with 8 bars of tolling piano (four consecutive A notes on the keyboard played together), then moves to D minor upon the appearance of the first fragmented melody, a progression that stalls on an E chord. After another round of A octaves, the melody started by Visconti’s son appears—A, B, C# (each played in four octaves). Again, there’s no progression after a certain point: the music freezes, staying on a C chord until the theme section begins.

The piece changes key to F-sharp major, and the three-note pattern returns; four bars in, with a move to D# minor, a second, even more gorgeous melody appears, reaching a peak with an A# chord. After a repeat, there’s a third sparkling little melody, a stepwise upward movement that begins on B. The simplicity, the cleanness of the three melodic lines is reminiscent of Satie’s first Gymnopédie; the slow coagulation of sound echoes the opening of Shostakovich’s Eleventh.

The instruments were primarily the small group of synthesizers that Bowie and Eno had brought to the sessions—Eno’s EMS and Minimoog, Bowie’s Chamberlin—along with the studio’s small collection of ARPs (and possibly some treated guitar). Both synthesizers and piano play the continually-tolling A or C octaves underneath much of the piece; the Chamberlin doubles for a wind section.

The theme section ends, the key returns to A major, there’s four bars of musings by a synthetic cello, and then the voices appear.

Bowie returned to the studio from Paris drained and irritable and decided to move operations to Berlin. Yet when he heard Eno’s music, he came up with a lyric in about ten minutes, and recorded it almost as quickly. He played Visconti what the latter recalled as a “Balkan boys choir record” (very likely the Śląsk records Bowie that had picked up in Warsaw). Bowie said he wanted to achieve a similar sound for his vocals, some of which echo the “helo helo” chorus of “Helokanie.”

Sula vie dilejo
Solo vie milejo
Cheli venco deho (x2)
Malio
Helibo seyoman
Cheli venco raero
Malio, malio

It seems like a newly-crafted dialect of Esperanto. Bowie’s lines aren’t nonsense words he dashed out: they’re a series of phonetics, with a rich internal rhyme scheme and a common rhythmic base (six syllables for each phrase except “malio,” which gets three, though Bowie varies the phrasing of his vocal—he sings the first “deho” in two notes, the second with a downward run of four notes). The lines are easy to sing, as the language seems to be a fusion of the most melodious Romance tongues—Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese—with a flavor of Slavic in it. (And the “East” appears as well, with the chanted “om” in the bass section).

And it’s not the hermetic, broken language of “Subterraneans.” There’s a richness, a warmth to the words: the long vowels, the easy lift of the mild consonants. It’s as though it was the lost language of a common Europe, some alternate blessed continent that escaped the wars. A tone poem from the world that wasn’t. (It’s fitting that “Warszawa”‘s partial inspiration was a choir named after a country that no longer exists: Silesia, first absorbed by Prussia in the 18th Century, then severed and distributed to Poland and Czechoslovakia after WWII.)

As the music of “Warszawa” is the work of a synthetic orchestra, a handful of machines standing in for what would have been dozens of instruments, its vocals are a choir of one man’s manipulated voice. Bowie sings the first lines in his regular baritone. Then, beginning with “cheli venco” Bowie sang onto a tape that Visconti had slowed down two semitones: played back at normal speed, Bowie’s voice had become a child’s. The final lines seem sung by a dervish.

Bowie named “Warszawa” well after he and Eno had made it: he hadn’t set out to capture the city in a song. If Low‘s A side was a series of brief communiques from a shattered man, its second side was a set of quiet interior landscapes, a psychic desolation embodied in an imaginary Eastern Europe. Berlin was the setpiece, but Warsaw, the gloomy city Bowie had walked through one lost afternoon, was its heart. The song is a broken, brooding man reincarnated in a city.

The creative peak of Low, “Warszawa” is one of Bowie’s most sublime works, and its influence would echo for years to come. Ian Curtis was so obsessed with the song that he named his punk group after it. Scott Walker’s “The Electrician” seems inspired by “Warszawa”‘s tolling opening (most of Walker’s contributions to Nite Flights, a 1978 Walker Brothers record, are reactions to Low and “Heroes”).

And how was it heard in Warsaw itself? The Polish punk rock groups of the late ’70s and early ’80s tended to draw on other influences than Bowie. Yet it was a touchstone for the poet Andrzej Sosnowski, who would use “Warszawa” as a hidden reference in his work. Sosnowski’s Warszawa “is always filtered through Bowie’s Warszawa, meaning there’s a mythical, concrete, bleak Warszawa that Bowie had in mind, that only partially is the real Warsaw,” the writer Agata Pyzik told me. “The image that has been prolonged in Western minds is very much like this, but you may also say that Bowie immortalized a certain image of the city, his inner Warsaw. I thought it always one of the most solemn, uncanny Bowie songs, and a proper homage to my city, which is until this day quite sinister.”

Recorded at Château d’Hérouville in September 1976 and Hansa, Berlin, September-October 1976. It was the standard opener of the 1978 tour (a version from Philadelphia is on Stage, while the clip linked above is from a Tokyo concert on 12 December 1978, filmed for the “Young Music Show”) and for some of the Heathen tour, 2002. Used by Philip Glass for the “Low” Symphony, 1992-93.

From top: unknown photog., “Construction of the Palace of Culture and Science,” Warsaw, ca. 1955; Nancy JM Blake, “Warsaw, 1976”;  “Anty Rama,” “Metro Plac Wilsona, Zoliborz, Warszawa,” 2009; Edek Giejgo, “Warszawa- Ulica Swietojanska 1976.”