Like a Rocket Man

November 24, 2015


Like a Rocket Man.

Given the new direction revealed in “Blackstar” and (possibly) its upcoming album, the Next Day Extra tracks now seem, particularly in the winning “Like a Rocket Man,” as a last (?) winking goodbye to the past, to the point where they barely exist as songs. They’re more bright coalitions of memories, in which everything from lyric to title to vocal to chords has an analogue somewhere back in the dead 20th Century.

“Like a Rocket Man” ticks off more boxes than even the other past-obsessed songs of The Next Day. The title’s a dig at an Elton John single Bowie had groused about being a “Space Oddity” ripoff from the day it charted; the verse melody is a near-actionable steal of the Beatles’ “Help“; the lyric references (again) the Kinks’ “Days,” while much of it’s a brutal recollection of what it was like to be a cocaine addict in the mid-Seventies.

As in “Fascination,” Bowie personifies cocaine (quite literally: “Little Wendy Cocaine”) as the consuming passion of his life in the Young Americans/ Station to Station years. His sunny top melody shines up his lines describing the joys of coke, its delusions, its agonies (“I’m lead, oh, I’m sand…I’m crawling down the wall: I’m happy screaming, yes I am!…I have no shape nor color, I’m God’s lonely man…I don’t want to die but I don’t want to live”). Of course, it’s easy to get lost in Bowie’s house of mirrors here: he’s playing openly with his own myths, tweaking the Coke Dark Magus Bowie tabloid image that gets drummed into service whenever a new album, single or biography is released.


“[It] has a deceptively bouncy beat but lyrically it goes to more dark places,” Tony Visconti said of the track, “and this time David sings it with a cheeky smile.” And Bowie savors his rhymes: the consonance of “shaking hips and cuckoo eyes” and the title line; the triple runs of “doxy/ trolly/ poxy” and “anything/ dealing/ heaven sings.”

The feel, musically, is a brief tour through a shadow Sixties via the Nineties, with a latticework of guitars: a brisk acoustic matched to the dry snare/cymbal drum figure; a low-mixed bass; ominous David Torn atmospheres heard in the middle distance; Gerry Leonard’s wistfully arpeggiated opening riff (packed off after being played once) and the groaning, retorting twin-guitar riff (Torn) that stamps itself on the coda.

Bowie provides his usual backdrop of “commenter” backing vocals (Elvis-like low asides, a few Ronnie Spector tics), while his lead vocal, particularly when single-tracked, has the nasally timbre of a fledgling work like “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” with some raw-sounding grazed notes left in the mix (see the high notes on “just tooo-ma-row” at 1:25) . It’s a fitting performance for a slight bonus track that wound up being a secret wake for a half-century’s worth of personae and memories.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. July 2012, The Magic Shop, NYC?; (overdubs) fall 2012-spring 2013, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 4 November 2013 on The Next Day Extra.


Pictures: From various chapters of Casanova: Avaritia (Matt Fraction/Gabriel Bá), 2011-2012. Things have come full circle: this book of Casanova was partially inspired (so Fraction says) by a look at “Pushing Ahead of the Dame” some years ago (Bowie fans will have a field day with the amount of references piled into this comic). So here we have it: the blog using for illustrations something that the blog itself played a (very) small role in. Yet another sign my work’s almost done. Thanks, Matt!

Also: don’t forget there’s a poll going on. And Happy Thanksgiving.


November 16, 2015



Ziggy Stardust was, in his creator’s words, a prefab rock star, a plastic rocker. Bowie tended to work out of sequence: he’d create something, kill it off, then look back in interviews and devise what his intentions had been. So Ziggy, he later said, was his fabricated rock performer, fashioned out of collective rock memory; he was a mannequin who sang on a few records and was soon dispatched.

Thing was, the sound of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars isn’t prefab 1971-1972 rock at all, with the possible exception of “It Ain’t Easy,” its bog-standard rock moment. Ziggy Stardust is shabby provincial music hall pop, shot through with bolts of Mick Ronson’s guitar, and lifting lines and sounds from horror movies, Fifties novelty singles, Beat poets and Kubrick films. You could find Ziggy a clunk-work of irreconcilable influences, but you really couldn’t argue it was “plastic.” It sounded too snippy and weird; it’s unassimilable. Even today, when “Suffragette City” turns up on a Pandora “Classic Rock” playlist, it stands out from “Lay Down Sally” or “Whipping Post” or what have you. It sounds like a vicious knock-off of classic rock standards: a track scrapped together by feral theater kids who managed to snare an ace guitarist and a Moog.

It’s one of the central ironies of Bowie’s work. Even when he tried to create mediocre, keep-your-head-down music, he kept making stuff that couldn’t quite pass. His mannequins would bother and even unnerve shoppers. “Shake It” is pretty dire 1983 R&B, but it wouldn’t have passed muster on many R&B stations of the time—its odd lyric, which Bowie seems to lovingly mock as he sings it, stringing phrases across bars; its fanatic castrati backing vocals; its lumpen rhythms.


On a bonus track released in 2013, Bowie seemed to pull off the trick at last. “Atomica” begins as simulacrum, drawing from the past three decades of music without grounding itself in any. Its opening 30 seconds could play anywhere—an Urban Outfitters, a Cheesecake Factory, or in the background of a home improvement show or a Korean cartoon—and wouldn’t draw attention. The lead guitar riff, nicely keeping in bounds; the tastefully popped bass; the seemingly programmed cymbal fill; the first lines—I’m just a rock star, stabbing away. All safely anonymous, as is the refrain, whose lyric seems to have been generated by bots.

But by the refrain, things have started going awry. Bowie jams twice as many syllables as should fit into his verse lines (“when-you’re-head-o-ver-heels-and-the-magic-is-there-but-im-POSS-i-ble–POSS-i-BLE”). He sings “police” like “puh-leeze,” rhymes “covered-up pool” with “purple tulle.” And after the second refrain, the track sinks into a hole of fixation, with Bowie moaning that “I….hold myself…like a god,” over and over again, until he looks ready to abandon the song. Snare drum fills and synthetic strings don’t rouse him. It takes the opening guitar riff, working as a defibrillator. “Atomica” marches out in its crooked way, stamped as yet another Bowie song.

“Atomica” started in the first wave of Next Day sessions in May 2011 (Gail Ann Dorsey’s on bass) but it needed more work, Tony Visconti said. Released as one of the Extras, it shares with its fellow bonus tracks a cheekiness, a sense of randomly-aimed parody, a labored looseness. “How others must see the faker,” Bowie once sang. But he was never a good faker, it turned out. He was the sort of counterfeiter who couldn’t resist altering whatever piece he was fabricating, so that any close look would reveal a forgery with its own strange intentions.

Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 May-ca. 15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (vocals, overdubs) spring-fall 2012, early 2013, The Magic Shop, Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 4 November 2013 on The Next Day Extra.

Top: Paramore, live in Dallas, 27 October 2013 (Antiquiet).

Born In a UFO

November 6, 2015


Born In a UFO.

Half a year after Bowie’s surprise return, it turned out that the surprise return wasn’t quite done yet. The Next Day Extra, announced in September 2013, offered four new tracks, along with compiling previous bonus tracks and remixes. It was, cynically, a means to get fans to buy the album again and, generously, a way for Bowie to get more songs out, rather than letting them languish for decades in his vaults, like all the alleged Lodger outtakes.

So what was The Next Day Extra? How should it be considered? As a new EP? As a digestif for an overstuffed album? As just more ones and zeroes sent into the ether, more disconnected music for a time when sequenced albums are antiquated?

The Extra tracks were mainly cut during the Next Day sessions but had needed more time to cook, Tony Visconti said, with further overdubs done in early 2013. But they didn’t sound too labored over. If anything united the Extra tracks, it was a sense of Bowie letting his hair down. No longer having to establish the Back-From-the-Dead Bowie, he could sneak out a couple of loopy, SF-themed songs that few people (relatively) would ever hear. Sharing an overbearing, blotto production aesthetic, the four Extra tracks now seem, with two years’ distance, to be a brief loud party held before the next scene change.

“Born In a UFO” is a case in point: a cracked parody of Bruce Springsteen (obviously in its refrain, but the verse melody also has a pinch of “It’s Hard to Be a Saint In the City“), with a Dylan nod (“‘there’s no direction home,’ she pleads”) and even some of Toni Basil’s “Mickey” in the rising keyboard lines (played by Bowie). A homage to SF serials Bowie had watched as a boy in Beckenham and Fifties novelty songs like the Earth Boys’ “Space Girl,”, it’s also a workable metaphor for falling in love with the “right” person at last: she or he can seem like they fell out of a spaceship one day, sent here to upend your life.

Zachary Alford said the song began as a reworking of a “leftover from Lodger,” (though there’s a chance he was recalling another song whose title Bowie later shifted to the released “UFO”). If so, you can see a few common threads—“UFO” shares the gonzo mood of “Red Sails” and has some vague similarities, chord-wise, to “DJ”: more in its sense of movement, with three rising chords as a hook (F-G-Ab in “UFO”, Am-Bm-C in “DJ”). Visconti and Alford (or Sterling Campbell) hammer the hell out of things; Earl Slick gets the “Andalusian” guitar solos. Bowie plays a suburban loser made hysterical by lust, though more for his alien inamorata’s fashion sense (“an a-line skirt,” “her clutch bag,” “silver hair, trapezoid flanks” and, best of all, “I was so in love with her lavender vest!“). All she’s missing is a bipperty-bopperty hat.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. July 2012, The Magic Shop, NYC?; (overdubs) fall 2012-spring 2013, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 4 November 2013 on The Next Day Extra. Thanks to “Crayon to Crayon” for musical insight, as often.

Top: Maj Halova, “Žižkov Television Tower,” Prague, January 2015 (“there are babies climbing our rocket-like TV tower”). Maj has been commenting for many years, and it’s always nice to see her take on a new post. Thanks, Maj.

POLL POLL POLL: closing in on 100 ballots received so far. Plenty of time for you to add to the pile! Again:, subject line: POLL. Your 30 favorite Bowie songs, 10 favorite albums.

Valentine’s Day

October 23, 2015


Valentine’s Day.

One of the last tracks completed for The Next Day, “Valentine’s Day” bristles with purpose: trebly, compressed, everything upfront, as if determined to get its hooks in you early. Scratched together quickly, it’s just Earl Slick on guitars (from chord-pacing acoustic to the lead lines) and the unobtrusive rhythm section of Tony Visconti and Sterling Campbell. It’s economical in structure as well, with just two D major progressions for verses (a set of knight’s moves away from the home chord) and refrains (a quick sweep back home) and then a shift to B minor for the coda.

The subject, if slightly oblique in the lyric, was spelled out by Visconti: “inside the mind of a high-school mass murderer named Johnny,* inspired by the spate of shootings in US schools.” An inspiration appears to have been the Columbine shootings, with the reference to the killer taking out “the football star,” but it could have been any of the endless run of American school slaughters of the past two decades: Red Lake, Virginia Tech, Nickel Mines, Northern Illinois U., Sandy Hook and so on.

It’s possible Bowie’s upcoming play Lazarus will shed some more light, as one of its main characters is Valentine, whose casting description was “the most ordinary of men—a person seemingly with little confidence—physically withdrawn to the point of invisibility; a loner who is in search of a friend—for some love—for a cause; but a man who is unable to edit his opinion and function as a ‘normal’ person; psychotic.” Or take the most recent revelations about the play, that some of its setting will be “inside the protagonist’s mind.”

So calling “Valentine’s Day” a straight-out depiction of a school shooting seems too literal. For one thing, who’s singing it? “Valentine” is seemingly another character, someone who’s confiding in the singer—the voice of a split personality, or the about-to-snap friend who’s warning the singer to stay home from school that day? And there’s little indication that the shooting is actually happening—it could well be a violent power fantasy (note how the setting shifts from school to “the mall” in the second verse).

“Isolation, revenge, osmosis” was Bowie’s précis for the song, and at its heart are the lines that build up the refrain—Valentine told me so, he’s got something to say. It’s a perversion of what Bowie had once promised his fans: that you can recreate your life, that you can build a life based on a commitment to change and renewal, that everybody can be a star. Here that dream of self-transformation is reduced to a hectoring, boorish demand—listen to me—at the point of a gun. It’s the terrorist position, as Leonard Cohen once called it: The terrorist position is so seductive that everybody has embraced it…Reduce everything to confrontation, to revenge.

Or just take how a line that Bowie in “Outside” had meant as a spur to creativity, a call to discard the past and focus on the present—not tomorrow…it happens today—is here merely the reality that some bastard with a gun could end your life today, just because he woke up and decided it was so. It’s happening today!


It wouldn’t be as chilling if Bowie hadn’t made the song so catchy, with his Beatles chorus vocals (compare his ooo-la-la-las to those of “You Won’t See Me”) and Slick’s guitar arpeggio fills. Even the line about Valentine’s victims—“Teddy and Judy down”—has a sad Sixties echo to it, calling back to Ray Davies’ Terry and Julie in “Waterloo Sunset“; in a brighter time, the song could have been about them, a pair of lovers trying to work things out. Instead they’re just bodies lying in a classroom, another pair of names in a newspaper report (recall also that the names of the Aboriginal couple in the “Let’s Dance” video were Terry and Jolene).

And there’s a sense of building anger and disgust in Bowie’s vocal, how he moves from his opening fifth-spanning phrases that he drags through bars, gently extending his vowels (“treeeeasured,” “football staaaar,” “toooolld me”), to his agitated push upward on the title line to, in the coda, harping on a single note until nudging up or down to end a phrase (“it’s-in-his-ti-ny-HAND”).

The video, directed by Indrani and Markus Klinko, filmed Bowie miming the song in the ground floor of the Red Hook Grain Elevator. With Bowie dressed casually while playing a headless Hohner G2T guitar, the video’s intention seems to end the cycle of Next Day videos, lovingly depicting Bowie’s aging features in harshly-filtered lighting. (As the blogger How Upsetting noted, it’s the “living” Bowie after his resurrection in the “Next Day” video—a Bowie back on the job, doing the typical rock star thing where he pantomimes his new song in some obscurely chic setting—the Red Hook Elevator looks like a Roman bath.)

But there’s a barely-hidden violence everywhere you look—the way Bowie wields the Hohner like a rifle, to the point where some fans claim he was deliberately referencing a Charlton Heston pose; or what seems to be a bullet firing across a thrummed guitar string. And Bowie’s face, demonically grinning while he sings his refrains, is the counterpart to his angry closing vocals: own this. It’s a curse on his adopted country, a place in which the regular, random slaughter of children is considered the equivalent of some unavoidable act of nature, like a tornado. Hence the song’s title: a day meant to commemorate lovers is some grubby fanatic’s day of indiscriminate judgement.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. July 2012, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day and later issued as its fourth single.

*Not sure why Visconti called the character “Johnny.” Perhaps an earlier version of the lyric had “Johnny” as Valentine’s first name or the name of the singer, or maybe Visconti was recalling some earlier Bowie “Johnnys” (see “Repetition” or “I’m Afraid of Americans”).

Top: Shots from Bowie’s “Valentine’s Day” video (Indrani, Klinko).

(You Will) Set the World On Fire

October 14, 2015


(You Will) Set the World On Fire.

A track that seems as if Bowie used a Waring blender to make it, “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” is set in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s yet has a garish rock-show arrangement. Its title is a would-be manager’s promise of fame but it’s also advice given by St. Catherine of Siena (another sign Bowie had a yen for medieval saints—see “The Next Day”).

The presence of Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan (all hanging out in the same club, like a folkie Justice League of America) comes off more as stage-dressing, as if Bowie had just read Van Ronk and Elijah Wald’s Mayor of MacDougal Street (also used for the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis) and figured he’d litter the song with characters from the book.

Because rather being than any sort of homage to American folk music, “Set the World On Fire” is far more a “Broadway” song, with Bowie doing a camp take on a self-serious music—its closest ancestors are “Star” and “Zeroes,” his music-hall stage takes on rock ‘n’ roll.

The figure at the center of the song (“the black girl and guitar/burn together hot with rage”) is most likely the folk singer Odetta, who was represented by Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager (Grossman could be the refrain’s narrator) and who sparked everyone from Janis Joplin to Dylan himself. So the reference to St. Catherine (who allegedly dictated her visions while writhing in orgasmic ecstasy) is Bowie casting the Sixties folk scene as a medieval order.

But using Odetta as the hub of the wheel here also seems like a feinting maneuver, as the only figure who came out of MacDougal Street who could sell magazines and get Top 10 hits was Dylan himself (“manipulate, origin, text,” Bowie winked in his description of the song to Rick Moody). I’d argue that the song is Bowie’s sly tribute to Dylan, the consummate thief, charismatic and manipulator of his era, who left all of his peers far behind by 1965 (“you’re in the boat, babe/ we’re in the water”). Here Dylan’s shown perched off stage, watching the hot new singer’s moves and maybe planning to nick them; the parallels with the shark-like young Bowie seem obvious, if unintended.

It’s a pummeling, somewhat disjointed track, with its E major verses rammed along by Earl Slick’s power chords, over which Bowie offers some spidery phrasings, while its E minor refrains are flooded with guitar dubs (some of which sound like they were originally scored as string lines), harmonies by Janice Pendarvis and Gail Ann Dorsey and some enthusiastic tambourine by Sterling Campbell. After some Slick fireworks for a rising major-chord break, the song finishes off with cannon-blast refrains, where Bowie pushes to the top of his voice’s range, as if trying to sound young and untried again by force of will. As St. Catherine said, “labor to increase the fire of your desire.”

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. July 2012, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day.

* From Letter 368, one of her epistles to Stefano di Corrado Maconi; it’s variously translated as “If you are what you ought to be, you will set fire to all Italy, and not only yonder” or “If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world on fire!”

Top: Oscar Isaac and cat, Inside Llewyn Davis (Coens, 2013).

Dirty Boys

October 8, 2015

garcon et fille

Dirty Boys.

“A euphemism, and a song, for all the glam rock stars that have ever been,” Tony Visconti offered as his take on “Dirty Boys.” His employer simply said: “Violence, chthonic, intimidation.”

Sequenced as a mid-tempo, spacious contrast to the frenetic opener “The Next Day,” “Dirty Boys” is an E minor piece that sways to Steve Elson’s fifth-spanning baritone saxophone figure: the riff sounds like a big man stomping across a dance floor. Elson, who played with everyone from Shuggie Otis and Big Jim Wynn to Natalie Merchant and Radiohead, cut the baritone sax lines for “Modern Love” and was one of the “Borneo Horns” on the subsequent 1983 tour. While Bowie was in his secretive pre-production for The Next Day, he ran into Elson in New York, had “a dad conversation,” and then told him “I’ll be in touch about something.” A year or so later, Visconti called Elson in.

“He’s a little guy and he’s got a huge baritone sax, and he plays this dirty solo that sounds like stripper music from the 1950s,” Visconti recalled of Elson’s work on “Dirty Boys.” “Old bump-and-grind stripper music…it wouldn’t be out of place on Young Americans.”

When Elson turned up at the Magic Shop in 2012, many tracks “had working titles and some reference vocals. David had ideas of where the horns should be,” he told CounterPunch. Bowie’s directions included “don’t even think about what key we’re in” and “go farther out” (similar to what he told Mike Garson when recording “Aladdin Sane”). He wanted only a few takes, nothing too considered. What he liked when recording, he told Elson, was to leave some oddments in tracks, “so you might find, in a record, things that only happened once that one time maybe—just to show we could do it…the gems hidden in the recording.”*

“Dirty Boys” honored this intention: it’s one of the few Next Day songs given the chance to ramble and breathe, and it’s full of characters. Take how Tony Levin’s bass, sputtering underneath as if vexed by how much of a star turn Elson’s sax is getting, will occasionally bubble to the surface. The general mood is a sinister Carl Stalling theme for a Forties Warner Bros. cartoon, with traces of Tom Waits’ mid-Eighties records.

It’s just three verses (shifts from E minor to C major, the same progression as “Eleanor Rigby”), two bridge/refrains that hint at a move to C major, and an outro Em solo. Elson is such a dominant presence in the track, from his main riff (a swaggering step-up from root to dominant note in each chord) to his closing solo, that it’s hard to imagine “Dirty Boys” working without the saxophone. It’s possible Bowie tried out having a guitar play the brass riff, but that would have overcooked the song: instead, the guitars are foils, hitting on the off-beats or giving spiteful replies to Bowie’s lines in the verses (the players were Visconti, Gerry Leonard and Earl Slick, who said of “Dirty Boys,” “if you’re going to have a title like that, I have to be on it”.)

Bowie’s phrasing, keeping to a narrow range of notes and, in the verses, ending every other line with a sinking triplet figure (“lone-ly road,” “cric-ket bat”), calls back to his old “folk” piece “Come and Buy My Toys,” and his lyric traffics in more memory: “Tobacco Road” (whether the Erskine Caldwell novel, the John Ford film or, most likely, the Nashville Teens’ 1964 hit) and, as usual, old Bowie songs—see the third verse’s “we all go through.” The setting’s Finchley Fair in North London; the dirty boys could be vampire hooligans; the singer (and the person whom he’s calling out) want to join the gang, or sleep with them, or both.

It’s the sound of a cutting contest run by Bowie (mainly single-tracked, with what seems like a touch of distortion on his vocal) playing a genteel dirty old man. One of the small disappointments of The Next Day is how much of an outlier “Dirty Boys” proved to be in the context of the album.

Recorded: (backing tracks) mid-September 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day.

Top: “Tataata,” untitled, 2011.

*Take the little barking/scraping noise heard in the last seconds of the track—it could be someone yelping in the studio, or a squawked note from another Elson take.

Another reminder: Saturday, October 17; Astoria, Queens. Bowie night /trivia contest/ Rebel Rebel reading; all that jazz.

So She

October 1, 2015


So She.

Like “God Bless the Girl,” “So She” was a promising song from the Next Day sessions demoted to a bonus track. Started at the Magic Shop in September 2011 (the core group here was David Torn and Gerry Leonard on guitars, Tony Visconti on bass and Zachary Alford on drums), its odd structure is a whirl of feints and altered and swapped roles. A stark rockabilly guitar turns out to be some harsh prep for the song’s main hook, a dancing six-note melody (with leaps of sixth and seventh intervals) carried on keyboard and guitar. The chord progression of the first verse gets reused for the outro, while the second verse nicks the intro’s A major progression. And what seems like a refrain, a bittersweet eight-bar shift to C# minor and F# (“further out to sea…”), turns out to be a bridge: it appears only once, with Bowie singing the title line over the return of the intro hook.

Paced by acoustic guitar (Bowie, showing yet again he’s an underrated acoustic player) and Visconti’s restless bass, colored by Leonard and Torn’s atmospheres (and the occasional piano dub, like the raindrops of notes starting at 1:57) and a Visconti/Bowie string arrangement that builds from ruminative long-held notes in the bridge to fluttering figures for the title line, “So She” shines for what seems like a moment, then winds down into silence.

There’s a trace of “Slip Away” (“slide away”) and “The Motel” (“the priceless man,” meet “the odorless man”), and echoes of other The Next Day pieces—purloined eyes; lunar eclipses. Mainly it’s the return of “The Loneliest Guy“: the broken lonelyheart figure that Bowie’s played since “Letter to Hermione.” The second verse’s brief lyric—“she saw me smile….feeling like…I’d never been”—offers a happy ending at last: he’s found a love that makes him feel as if he hasn’t been born. Yet the reveal is that she makes him forget, for a moment, what he really is: “the only one and all alone.” And there it ends. Even the title’s a fragment: so she what? We’ll never know, nor will he, apparently.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. September 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day: Deluxe Edition.

Top: “Chris JL,” “Shoreditch, 2012.”

God Bless the Girl

September 24, 2015


God Bless the Girl.

For nearly a year, Bowie toyed with where to place “God Bless The Girl” (called “Gospel” until late in The Next Day sessions), moving the track up and down in the album sequence until he finally cut it, reserving it as a disc-closing bonus track for the album’s Japanese release. It was a little thank-you to a country with which he’d had a long working relationship (and also, and probably not coincidentally, a country where people still buy CDs.)

Like many in the US, UK and Europe, I first heard “God Bless the Girl” as a YouTube upload, where some guy who’d bought the Japanese issue recorded the track playing on his stereo. Yet another moment of global community created by Bowie’s merchandising stratagems.

Cutting “God Bless the Girl” and “So She,” among the more buoyant-sounding tracks that Bowie recorded in the period, made the climate of The Next Day ever more wintry. In keeping with Bowie’s frame of using past styles as templates for new songs, “God Bless the Girl” drew on Young Americans and “Underground,” with Bowie creating a “gospel” chorus of himself, Janice Pendarvis and Gail Ann Dorsey, and devoting the track’s last minute to their increasingly complex vocal arrangements.

Most of the players were overdubbed late in the sessions, suggesting that “God Bless the Girl” went through a number of shape-shifts in the studio (with perhaps Gerry Leonard’s ominous atmospheric guitar a holdover from an earlier incarnation): Morgan Visconti (son of Tony) plays the crisp Bo Diddley-esque riff on acoustic guitar, Henry Hey gets a brief piano solo, and the spare rhythm section (mostly Tony Levin’s Chapman stick and Zachary Alford’s kick drum and toms in the verses) is livened up by the percussionist Alex Alexander on woodblocks and tambourine. It’s structurally sparse as well: a long intro, a pair of verses in rising C major progressions, a rising A minor refrain, an intro recapitulation/piano solo, and a curtailed third verse that cuts into a refrain that’s elongated into a coda.

Is it an ode to a social worker or a nun, someone who’s quietly let down by the great gap between the promise of heaven and shabby life on earth? Or, in a parallel to the scenario Flora Sigismondi filmed for the “Next Day” video, is it the life of the “holy” prostitute Jackie (“her work is love…God has given me a job”) who’s trapped in a prison of her own devising, with some Christian imagery and even a nursery rhyme reference (Jackie sits in her corner). There’s the mystery of the reoccurring line there is no other—a rock-solid assurance of God’s existence, and a flat statement that there is no God. The Gnostic image of being “a slave without chains,” and the sense of entropy, of things running down—all movements in the refrain lyric are declines (wine becomes water; spring, winter; light, darkness), and as Bowie sings near the fade out: years pass so swiftly. Old songs are buried in the track, as they always are with Bowie—the brutes of “Funtime” turn up to close the refrains, with Bowie singing “I don’t wanna hurt you, just wanna have some fun” but sounding as if his fun requires her pain.

Bowie works to make “God Bless The Girl” unreadable. Take his stylized singing in the refrains, where he lands hard on each opening syllable, digs into the “ay” sounds, and repeats “treasure treasure” like a nervous tic, but his voice is still aching for deliverance, for purpose, for something other than the world. Or the vocal chorus, especially in the polyphonic coda where Pendarvis and Dorsey parry against their other voices, which falls in the line of “Underground” and “Young Americans”: it’s a collective jubilant celebration of one lonely, doomed man.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. mid-September 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 14 March 2013 on The Next Day‘s Japanese issue, and later on The Next Day: Extra.

Top: Satoshi Ohki, “A Nocturnal Tokyo,” 2012.

If You Can See Me

September 18, 2015


If You Can See Me.

“If You Can See Me” is dead-center in The Next Day‘s original sequence, like a scarecrow meant to send the half-hearted listener packing, with its chromatic chord changes, gear-shifts in meter, aggressive off-kilter top melodies and a lyric gnomic even by Bowie standards. Tony Visconti was struck by Bowie’s writing here, praising the “very wide, beautiful, crunchy jazz chords, with time signatures that Dave Brubeck would be proud of.”

Much of The Next Day reflects earlier periods in Bowie’s creative life—Bowie not sampling himself so much as he’ll “remix” the style of a Scary Monsters or Man Who Sold the World to fit current moods and obsessions. Seen in this light, The Next Day is something of a parallel world’s Bowie greatest hits record—slightly familiar songs as seen darkly through funhouse mirrors.

So “If You Can See Me” (and “Heat”) are the album’s most direct representatives of the Leon/Outside years. Yet where the Leon/Outside tracks were born from a band’s free improvisations, guided by Brian Eno’s “random” suggestions and steered by the likes of Reeves Gabrels and Mike Garson, “If You Can See Me” is essentially Bowie, sitting at a keyboard at home, rigging together an Outside song by himself, as if working with memories of old parameters.

The song’s built, as Bowie sings in one verse, as “chutes and ladders….from nowhere to nothing.” The D-flat intro and refrains, in a punishing 5/4 time, slowly climb from an opening G-flat chord to A-flat to B-flat minor until, after briefly losing footing and sliding down to Ab, it finally reaches the peak, resolving hard home on D-flat to end the sequence. This feeling of a desperate upward movement is furthered by Bowie’s phrasing in the refrains, where he sounds as if he’s moving with a great weight on his back, until ending with an exhausted, manically triumphant boast.

And the 4/4 verses are a shaky huddle around F minor, mainly sung over a drum loop and a stabbing keyboard line, with a syncopated bass pattern (with a flatted fifth note) that buttresses an E major chord guitar riff. As Clifford Slapper (who kindly puzzled out the song for me) said, the verses feel “jumpy, nervous, as if dancing on hot coals, before finding brief respite on F minor periodically (e.g., on “and meet me across the river”).” Again, Bowie added to the unsettled harmonic mood with a phrasing in which he’s a contrary force to the bassline hook, mainly keeping to one note, dragging lines across bars.

His lyric has further shades of Outside—hints at ritual sacrifice (“take this knife”) and serial killing (“a love of violence and dread of sighs”). The ghost of Ramona A. Stone walks again (“I should wear your old red dress”—recall “Paddy, who’s been wearing Miranda’s clothes?”), as do older specters—the utopian genocidal Saviour Machine, the dictator of “We Are Hungry Men,” the Führerling Alternative Candidate. (“Identities switch between someone who may be Bowie and a politician,” Visconti said of “If You Can See Me”.) Its last refrain finds Bowie in the ecstatic register of a fanatic, a conqueror or perhaps even God Himself, leveling curses, sacking the towns, threatening annihilation. The last calls of “If you can see me, I can see you“, slowly decreasing in tempo, are like a child-god’s taunts (“crusade, tyrant, domination,” Bowie offered as a précis.) But Bowie has always enjoyed playing villains, as they tend to get the best lines.

Does it all hold together? The production veers all over the place, with Bowie’s chintzy-sounding synthesizer lines getting more prominence in the mix than Zachary Alford’s kinetic drum patterns; Tony Levin is a quagmire foundation (in the brief post-apocalyptic coda, Levin grumbles off into the distance); Gail Ann Dorsey gets her most prominent spot on the album with her whirling vocal intro (shades of Clare Torrey on Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky“) and adds a high ceiling to some of Bowie’s lines. Bowie seems delighted to have managed to set the thing in motion, relishing the rhythm of lines like “American Anna, fantastic Alsatian” and having a blast playing Shiva, Destroyer of Worlds in his last refrain.

Impenetrable, viciously-sung, a strange dark work of labored ambition, “If You Can See Me” wound up being the Next Day track which most hinted at Bowie’s next move, the “Sue”/”Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” single in 2014.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. mid-September 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day.

Again, much thanks owed to Clifford Slapper (this song was a monster to figure out).

Top: Nikola Tamindzic, “SS1,” from his series “Interbeing.” See you next month, Nikola. (Again, October 17 in NYC.)

I’d Rather Be High

September 10, 2015


I’d Rather Be High.
I’d Rather Be High (Venetian Mix).
I’d Rather Be High (Louis Vuitton ads).

Promoting Lodger in 1979, Bowie said his intention (which he’d only realized after he made the album) had been to create new situations by jarring together different elements. So you had Turkish stage-folk with a reggae base, or an Errol Flynn sea pirate scenario set to a Harmonia backing track. Something of the same is found in “I’d Rather Be High,” which shoehorns in Berlin reveries, Beatles vocals, Waughian satire, war reportage, Nineties neo-psychedelia and, in a later incarnation as the soundtrack of a Louis Vuitton ad, New Romantic trappings. It’s a traffic jam of references and signifiers.

Over a progression that plays three-card monte games in its D major key,* “I’d Rather Be High” has a dense lyric whose opening verse alone references Vladimir Nabokov’s last Russian-language novel, The Gift, which Nabokov wrote in Hitler’s Berlin from 1935 to 1937. As Roger Boylan wrote, The Gift is Nabokov’s “homage to the world that was,” his farewell to the Russian language and “the gift” of Russian literature, and “in its ambiguities, its poetry, its wordplay, and its structural originality, a road map to the rest of Nabokov’s work.”

One hot summer’s day, Fyodor Konstantinovich Godunov-Cherdyntsev (a barely-disguised self-portrait of a young Russian émigré aristocrat and writer in Berlin), goes to the park district of Grunewald, one of a mass of hearty Berliners. “The sun licked me all over with its big, smooth tongue. I gradually felt I was becoming moltenly transparent, that I was permeated with flame and disintegrated and dissolved…My personal I…had somehow disintegrated and dissolved…assimilated to the shimmering of the summer forest with its satiny pine needles…and spermy odor of sun-warmed grass.” Or, as Bowie sings more prosaically, “brilliant and naked/ just the way that authors look.”

What’s interesting is that Bowie may not have read The Gift at all, as the passage which I quoted is included in a book that Bowie very much had read: Otto Friedrich’s Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s. Friedrich’s survey of Weimar Berlin, along with Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novellas, fueled Bowie’s conception of Berlin when he moved there. Friedrich was one of Bowie’s maps to an imagined Berlin, and whenever Bowie wasn’t content with the depleted, heroin-filled West Berlin of 1977, he could escape into pre-war fantasies: bicycling around sporting Isherwood’s Weimar-era haircut, going to the Brücke Museum, rereading Friedrich’s book over breakfast at the Anderes Ufer.

“I’d Rather Be High” has a similar feel of timelines overlapping and collapsing, like a floor of a tenement giving way and crashing down into the lower flats. The second verse, set in some grim tea room in a vague wartime London, references Evelyn Waugh’s WWII novel Officers and Gentlemen (“Clare” could be Ivor Claire, a soldier facing desertion charges) while “Lady Manners” suggests Lady Diana Cooper (née Manners), muse and patron of a World War I group of intellectuals who mostly died in the trenches.** Onward and outward the cracked storyline spins. Clare turns up in Cairo to join his regiment, winds up back in England at his parents’ gravestone.

Set against all of this time flux is the “present day” of the refrains: a soldier on a battlefield somewhere (it could be Gallipoli or Fallujah), shooting at men in the sand, wishing he could be tripping on something just to get out of the hell of reality. Tony Visconti had an oddly specific take on the lyric: “the lament of a demobbed Second World War soldier who would rather succumb to base emotions than be a human being.” (He also took pains to note that “Bowie does not want to be high. He is clean and has been an AA member for years.”). “Indifference, miasma, pressgang,” was all Bowie has had to say.

Bowie tended to consume books by the barrelful and he’d raided the likes of Alan Sillitoe for plotlines as early as his debut album in 1967. But something like “I’d Rather Be High,” so thickly-settled with literary references that there’s little room to breathe, conjures a world primarily existing in books and old memories of books. Nile Rodgers told the story that Bowie, having invited Rodgers to his home in Switzerland in 1982, spent hours showing him things—paintings, treasured records, books—so that Rodgers could get a sense of how Bowie’s mind worked. There’s something like this in “I’d Rather Be High,” which dares listeners to puzzle it out—it’s Bowie indicating that much of his “lost” years were spent lost in old books, and it could be as close to a portrait of his current mindset than anything else on the album.

In November 2013, Bowie showed up in a Louis Vuitton ad, directed by Romain Gavras. It starred the model Arizona Muse, who worked the Vuitton merchandise while Bowie and a Louis XVI court setting provided her with a lavish, slightly surreal backdrop. There are nods to the ball scene in Labyrinth (Bowie as another aging satyr ogling a young woman), Adam Ant’s “Prince Charming,” Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and so forth. Creepy doubles, a festooned man who looks like a plague victim, a set of levitating monks: it comes off like a budget-bursting episode of Russell T. Davies’ version of Doctor Who.

For the ad, Bowie offered a new mix of the song with prominent harpsichord (played by Henry Hey, as per the Next Day Extra credits, which suggests the “Venetian” mix was planned for the Vuitton ad early on, or that perhaps it was a scrapped earlier mix of the track that Bowie earmarked for the ad—some versions of the ad used a harpsichord-only variation in spots).

Hey’s harpsichord complemented Gerry Leonard’s lead guitar riff, which, in the track’s original mix, dulled itself through repetition (that said, the original mix better showcased Zachary Alford’s tricky shuffle pattern). While the “Venetian” mix couldn’t salvage the song’s grating bridge, which pops off with Bowie shouting “teenage sex—YEAAH!”, it added batteries of new vocals to the gorgeous outro, whose long-held “flyyyyying”s (in debt to John Lennon’s lysergic vocals on “Rain” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”) were some of Bowie’s finest performances on the record.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. mid-September 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day. The “Venetian mix” was included on The Next Day Extra.

* Mainly by moves to avoid going “home” to D major. See the verse (Bm-D-Bm-G-A), the refrain (A-Em-A-Dm-F#m-Dm-D) and the bridge (D-A-E-C7-A). There’s also another possible Nabokov nod in the intro: A-D-A.

** The connection’s likely owed to a character in Waugh’s novel, “Mrs. Reginald Stitch,” whom Waugh reportedly based on Lady Manners.

Top: Miley Cyrus, NYC, 2013.


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