I’ll Take You There

August 24, 2015

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I’ll Take You There.

The other Bowie/Gerry Leonard co-composition, “I’ll Take You There” had bigger and better hooks than their “Boss of Me” but wound up slotted as a frenetic bonus track. Set in a B minor key that it’s desperate to escape whenever possible, “I’ll Take You There” is Bowie reconciling with his Eighties, to the point where his instructions in the studio were apparently to play “Beat of Your Drum” for the band a few times.

It’s mixed to grab at you, bluntly and often: the stereo-panned drums (fattened with percussion overdubs in the mixing sessions); Leonard, David Torn and Tony Visconti punching in as many guitar tracks as the console can take (Bowie played some acoustic, not that it’s found anywhere in the mix’s heavy traffic); Leonard doing his best Earl Slick imitation for a lead riff; a pneumatic drill of an intro/outro guitar line; the usual loop-de-loops with the backing vocals.

The lyric is well-sung bunk (the refrains start “what will be my name in the USA?”— it helps to forget the English language while listening) and the dippy bridge builds to a “look up…at…staaaaars!” climax that leaves Bowie stranded like a cat in a tree—the band has to ladder-walk him down before the next refrain kicks off.

It’s heartening that Bowie’s gaudy pantomime/ desperate “rocker” side hasn’t gone entirely lost, that he hasn’t grown too respectable. A tacked-on track on the “deluxe” edition of The Next Day, “I’ll Take You There” gives an amphetamine shot to an album bowing under the weight of its accumulated histories, miseries and deaths.

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: Deluxe Edition.

Top:  Xiaojun Deng, “Mombasa,” March 2011.

“DBMSG77”

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Ian McDuffie is a Chicago-based artist who’s been following this blog since…2010? A long time. In terms of blog commenters, he’s one of the village elders.

Ian’s taken my doom-filled, never-was 1977 Bowie Madison Square Garden concert from the “Bring Me the Disco King” post and has turned it into a short comic book. It’s been a tough month, so when I came home to find a copy of this in the mail, and to see my writing had inspired this—well, it really was something. So thanks, Ian, and thanks to all of you for sticking with this blog over the years (only 16ish more entries to go).

Please consider picking it up.

Rebel Rebel Promo News

Also: if you’re in the NYC area, mark your calendars: Sat. October 17, 2015.

It’s a big Bowie night at Q.E.D. in Astoria, Queens. I’ll be reading from Rebel Rebel and helping run a Bowie trivia contest, among other things. There will be music, and I’ll sign any books that you bring (and will have some copies to sell, too.) More details to come soon.


Boss of Me

August 17, 2015

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Boss of Me.

After the first Next Day sessions of May 2011, Bowie had a good set of backing tracks (“Heat” and “Love Is Lost,” which will come later in this survey, also had their rhythm tracks cut then) but he was far from ready to move to the vocal/overdub phase. Having gone through ideas stockpiled from his “off duty” years, he wanted to freshen the pot with some new compositions.

So that summer he visited his guitarist/bandleader Gerry Leonard in Woodstock (Leonard had a house there; Bowie, a nearby mountain). “He said, ‘okay, I’ll come over for coffee and maybe we’ll do a little more writing,'” Leonard recalled to Rolling Stone. Borrowing a Roland TR-808 from a friend (he couldn’t say why—“we were still in this official secrets act [period], y’know?“], Leonard set up a makeshift studio in a back room, with a keyboard, the Roland and some guitars and amps. “It was ready to pick up instruments and bash around,” as he told the writer Jamie Franklin.

Bowie and Leonard scratched out two songs, both of which they’d record in the next round of studio sessions in mid-September 2011. “‘I’d just establish the tempo and we’d program up a very simple beat and play along,” Leonard said. “When we worked out all the sections, then we would do a very simple little recording of that.”

One song, a mid-tempo C minor piece, took its title (no one’s confirmed this but it has to be true) from one of Leonard’s effects processors, the Boss ME-80. You can just imagine how it went: “ha! Boss ME! You’re not the Boss of ME!” Using this cliche as a lyrical rallying point, Bowie wrote lines which he rhymed “cool…again” with “cool…again,” gave character insights like “life has your mind and soul” and built to peak inanity with “and under these wings of steel, the small town diiiiiies,” which he sang like a dying Valkyrie.

Sure, “Boss of Me” is a possibly a joke about his Somalian-born wife being a “small town girl,” and yes, he’s aware you’re thinking that, and so having some fun with your groundless suppositions about his marriage, and you know he knows this, and so on and on into infinity. He told Rick Moody that key words for the song were “displaced,” “flight” and “resettlement,” so maybe there’s a refugee narrative in there somewhere that Bowie’s privy to at least.

There are a few things of interest—Tony Levin’s Chapman stick, Zachary Alford’s cymbal work, the grumpy baritone saxophone retorts by Steve Elson, sounding like a bear waking up from hibernation, the tippling recorder lines by Visconti in the bridge, and the clever structural shift, as the C minor verse chords (Cm-Am-Bb-F) subtly become the refrain chords: it’s a passively hostile takeover. It has good stereo placement; there’s depth in the mix. But there are always a few things of interest, even in the most dire recording. Which this is—by far the worst thing on its album. There is no reason for it to exist. Bowie had a decade to create The Next Day: including something so third-rate on it seems an act of genial perversity.

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.

Top: Trevor H., “Laputan Robot,” 2012.


The Next Day

August 10, 2015

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The Next Day.
The Next Day (video).

Object one: Album cover art (CD: 5″ x 5.5″; LP: 12.5″ x 12.4″). Designer: Jonathan Barnbrook (photo: Masayoshi Sukita). Designed September-December 2012; issued 8 March 2013.

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I thought that some fan made a joke cover,” Tony Visconti recalled his reaction upon first seeing Jonathan Barnbrook’s The Next Day image. He wasn’t alone.

Commissioned by Bowie in September 2012, Barnbrook proposed that the Next Day cover image should be the defaced cover of an earlier Bowie album. “I thought it would be quite a shocking thing to do and also play with this idea of image,” he told the journalist Rob Meyers. He experimented on nearly every Bowie LP cover, with Aladdin Sane a promising candidate. But “subverting [Aladdin] didn’t work because it’s subversive already…if you subvert Aladdin Sane, you’re adding to it, not destroying it.”

In Sukita’s “Heroes” cover photograph, by contrast, “there’s a distance.” The photo is highly stylized (Bowie replicating a hand gesture from a favorite Egon Schiele painting) and completely contained: it’s Bowie as a god in a universe of one.

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Barnbrook first scrawled over the “Heroes” photograph and titles: it looked like a bitter ex-fan had wielded a magic marker (it was the scabrous recycled look of some Fall and Pavement album covers). It didn’t quite work. Then he struck upon having a white square obscure much of the photo. “It had to be something that was in direct contrast to the image underneath but that wasn’t too contrived (we know all design is contrived, that is the essence of the word ‘design’),” Barnbrook wrote in a blog entry in January 2013. “It would have been clearer to many people if we had scribbled all over the cover but that didn’t have the detachment of intent necessary to express the melancholy of the songs on the album.”

Although the album hadn’t been titled when Barnbrook started his work (the code name for the design project was “Table”), The Next Day and the defaced “Heroes” image worked in tandem. “We can be heroes—just for one day,” Bowie had sung. Now his beautiful alien 1977 visage is covered by what looks like a Post-it note. Because it’s the next day, the day after being heroes, back to her being mean and him drinking all the time.

It’s also Bowie’s first album cover not to show his “current” image.* At some point, out of boredom or necessity, the likes of Dylan and Paul McCartney and Neil Young have issued albums whose covers were a painting or a photograph of something other than the aging artist. Not Bowie: his albums are a sequence of magazine covers, his “current” look as important as his current sound. (And recall that “Heroes” had extra impact because it was the first commissioned Bowie cover photo since Young Americans.) The Next Day offers messy shorthand. Bowie isn’t quite “back”: no interviews, no tours, no new cover picture. And rather than claiming he’s offering any new sound, he’s openly scribbling and pasting over his old work.

* Exceptions include Tin Machine II and the original Buddha of Suburbia.

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Object two: Music video (2:58). Dir: Floria Sigismondi. Starring: David Bowie, Gary Oldman, Marion Cotillard, Megan Neal Bodul, Catherine Jolleys, Brigitte Hagerman, Folake Olowofoyeku, Joshua Blake Shiver. Cinematography: Jeff Cronenweth. Executive producer: Colleen Haynes (Black Dog Films.) Producers: Jennifer Chavaria, Oualid Mouaness. Released 8 May 2013.

A corrupt priest goes to his favorite bar, populated some possibly depraved Catholic icons, and dances with a woman working there. The music is courtesy of a prophet who’s apparently been out in the desert for a while. The woman develops stigmata, blood sprays everywhere, the prophet’s attacked by false priests and harlots until the deus ex machina ending, complete with heaven-sent white light and the prophet being raptured away.

The reaction was to be expected. The Catholic League’s Bill Donohue attacked Bowie, though more for aesthetic incoherence than blasphemy (“it’s a sure bet [Bowie] can’t stop thinking about the Cadillac of all religions, namely Roman Catholicism. There is hope for him yet,” he concluded). A former Archbishop of Canterbury said Bowie didn’t have the guts to make a video that played with Islamic imagery. YouTube briefly deleted the video (though apparently in error, not in response to complaints), which made fans excited for a moment that Bowie was “dangerous” again. A few tabloids got to run some two-page spreads with blood and half-dressed women, which they always like doing.

It does all seem a bit tired: épater le bourgeois catholique is a very Eighties thing, and Madonna had gotten there first. What saves Floria Sigismondi’s video is its cracked sense of humor, its taste for the grotesque and Sigismondi’s eye for a shot: the way Gary Oldman’s priest, with his ducktail haircut, looks like an aged greaser; the way Marion Cotillard seems to be willing herself out of the frame though abstracted bliss.

“‘The Next Day’ is a song about a tyrant, let me leave it at that,” Visconti said in an interview, while in another he described the tyrant as a medieval Englishman [or “Catholic cardinal”] who “was very insignificant. I didn’t even know who Bowie was talking about. But if you read the lyrics, it’s quite a horrific story.”

A weary sense of obligation led me to spend a couple days trying to track down which “English tyrant” Bowie had read about, but searches for tyrants who were stuffed in hollow trees, or who cavorted with whores, or who were chased through alleys, turned up nothing in particular. Anyway Bowie’s character is far more a general idea of some grasping second-tier Shakespearean villain, a rabble-rousing priest who winds up being killed by his rabble. The video plays with this: all of its medieval Catholic imagery (Joan of Arc is at the bar, as is the eyeless St. Lucy, though the flagellant barback is more a Dan Brown nod than anything else).

It’s all a bit of theater, but the main joke is about Bowie. The sequence of Next Day videos is a storyline. “Where Are We Now” is the returned ‘Bowie’ as a mummified museum exhibit, supervised by the “real” Bowie who keeps off stage. “The Stars Are Out Tonight” is Bowie playing himself as a senior citizen. And “The Next Day” is his big, vulgar Cinescope resurrection, with Bowie howling, jumping around, cursing, performing ‘live’ again. “The normalisation,” as the blogger How Upsetting described it. “Bowie performs. He hams it up. The curtain is pulled back. The deity figure is snuffed out at the end.”

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Object three: Musical composition/recording (3:27). Composer: D. Bowie. Performers: D. Bowie, vocals, guitar; David Torn: guitar; Gerry Leonard: guitar; Gail Ann Dorsey: bass; Zachary Alford: drums; Antoine Silverman, Maxim Moston, Hiroko Taguchi, Anja Wood: violins, viola, cello (string arrangement: Bowie, Tony Visconti). Producers: D. Bowie, T. Visconti. Spiritual influences: Mick Ronson, Macbeth. Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 May-ca. 15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released 8 March 2013.

The doctors tell me I shouldn’t be here now. But I don’t go to the doctors for chemotherapy or anything anymore. I just put one foot in front of the other, and the next day is the next day, and you do your best. I’ve still got so much to do.

Mick Ronson, 1993.

You can talk about the drums: Zachary Alford harping on the beat, brooking no distractions, sparing little time for fills, pacing everyone with his hi-hat. Or the guitars: the crunchy off-beat figure that comments throughout the track, and the trebly guitar that comments on its comments, and the spectral guitar that plays a rising E Dorian line to ladder up to the refrains, or all the other dubs happy to make the occasional clatter. Or the other touches, like the barely-audible rising string lines in the refrains.

You can talk about the song, happy to stay in its bright E major (some verses seem to pull off into G major, only to be dragged up or down, depending where they are, back to E), with its chassis a set of fat seventh chords (G7-C7-E7, and so on).

All well and good. But “The Next Day” is Bowie’s vocal and little else. Sequenced as the opening track, it’s Bowie offering a demonstration, in a few minutes, that he’s alive and unwell and full of piss and vinegar. His phrasings are delicious consonant runs (“ignoring the pain of their partic-u-lar dis-ease-es“), hooked on simple dumb rhymes (“yeah” with “yeah,” ending with “yeah”). His words blur into runs of aggressive sound, as if Bowie’s been penned up for a decade and needs to get this stuff out. Can you believe this? Echoing “Breaking Glass,” he kills off a verse by saying: Listen! Or how a stray line catches the ear—listen to the whores, he tells her—but before you process it, here comes another refrain battering at you.

And what a refrain. Bowie, seemingly doubled by a pantheon of himself, hollers down a world that wants him dead (it wants everyone dead, if you think about it). Who knows whether a line from one of Mick Ronson’s last interviews was in his mind as he wrote it, but “The Next Day” winds up being a curse at death from the ranks of the living. Whatever credos Bowie has offered, whatever dreams he’s encouraged, his work boils down to a line he’d sung at age 22, in “Cygnet Committee“: We want to live.

Even if you’re left half-dead, some near-corpse stuffed into a tree by fanatics, you’re not dead yet. So give ’em the finger, if you can. HERE I AM: NOT QUITE DYING. The anti-epitaph. The bitter pleasure derived from living despite God or the fates’ best intentions. The joy of the numbing business of life, all the small routines, all the breaths and footsteps, the eye-blinks and stomach rumbles. The small beauty of just keeping on, however pointless it all may seem. Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, a doomed Scot once said. And the NEXT DAY and the NEXT and ANOTHER DAY, offers the man from Bromley, roaring out those last words. One foot in front of the other. Live, live, goddamn you: live.


You Feel So Lonely You Could Die

July 31, 2015

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You Feel So Lonely You Could Die.

Like many Bowie songs of this century, “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” is burdened with those of the previous one. Bowie impressed a songbook into service here: verses have the flavor of Leonard Cohen’s beaten warhorse “Hallelujah,” while its title comes from “Heartbreak Hotel.” (Elvis, on this album, is like a watermark on a set of press photos.) Bowie pillages his own stores, too. “Rock and Roll Suicide” is in the guitar figure (the song’s the first Bowie waltz in decades), “The Supermen” in the vocal arrangement; the outro slightly varies the drum pattern of “Five Years,” a reference so obvious that every reviewer felt compelled to note it. (And now I do.)

It’s thick enough to make you choke. In “You Feel So Lonely…,” sequenced as the near-last word of The Next Day, Bowie calls up old spies, broken assignations, outsourced torture, shabby political killings (“the assassin’s needle” calls to mind the murder of the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov, dispatched by poisoned umbrella tip). It’s a powerless reckoning, a harping on history (“Russian history,” Tony Visconti specified) that’s been crated up and shipped off, leaving him to pick at dried wounds. It’s galling how much has been gotten away with. All Bowie can hope is that the creep in his sights (a traitor, a sell-out, like an old lover who once worked for the Stasi, or maybe it just felt like it) will one day have the guts to dispatch himself (or herself). (The “official” words for this song are “Traitor,” “Urban” and “Comeuppance.”)

There’s also a sense that the song’s target doesn’t know, or care, how much hate they’ve bred over the years, how much purchase they’ve had on the singer’s imagination. No one ever saw you, Bowie begins, recounting the creep leaving notes in a park somewhere (a fan on Bowie Wonderworld speculated whether this local news story was an inspiration). But not even he saw it at the time: so much of this diatribe is a man making war against his imagination. Oblivion will own you! he cries, though he’s the one who’s most keeping the hated figure alive. He can hope for justice all he wants, whether via rifles, ropes or ricin, or that his hated object is finally stuck in a room somewhere with a mirror. But if justice comes, he’ll lose the light he’s orbiting around.

As always, look for the joke in the curse, like the pissy moan that “people don’t LIKE you” (sung after Bowie’s already called for the hangrope), or the chord sequence of D!-E!-A!-D! while he moans his final “die-ie-ie-ieee” to close out refrains. Momus once argued (and perhaps will argue again) that it’s a possible dig at Morrissey, more revenge for Morrissey stealing “Rock and Roll Suicide” for “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday” (“vile rewards for you” is very Moz). And of course, the charges of being a sneak, a vampire and a thief have been leveled against the singer as much as anyone.

What makes the track is the ironic righteousness of Bowie’s lead vocal, one of his most gorgeously sustained performances. Over crabbed chord progressions in a George Harrison vein,* the arrangement is a communal recreation of “classic” Bowie, if through a distorted mirror. DB paces things on his 12-string acoustic, Visconti has a string quartet play keyboard lines and vocal hooks, Gail Ann Dorsey and Janice Pendarvis offer blissful curses. A beautiful ode to, as Lady Stardust sang so many years ago, darkness and disgrace.

Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 May-ca. 15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day.

* See Harrison’s “Long Long Long” (also a waltz) for a similar slowly-descending IV-iii-ii progression (found in Harrison’s refrain (Bb/Am/Gm) and in Bowie’s verse (G/F#m/Em, “leaving slips of paper, somewhere..”), though Bowie moves to the vi chord (Bm, “in the park”) before going home to D, where Harrison gets home via the dominant (C)).

Top: Osamu Kaneko, “Tokyo,” 2012.


Plan

July 22, 2015

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Plan.

Starting life as a hard-hit snare and kick pattern played by Zachary Alford, “Plan” was toyed with throughout the Next Day sessions, with Bowie pasting in guitar dubs, shaker and cowbell (?) garnishes and organ drones that sound as though he’d heard a few Yo La Tengo records during his retirement. While Bowie would work the drum pattern into another track, “The Informer,” he also released the instrumental as “Plan” on the Next Day‘s “deluxe” release.

For what essentially was a studio sketch given a major-league promotion, “Plan” breathes well and creates an unsettled mood in its simple structure: its organ drones build in crescendo three times, at first dominating the mix to the point of distortion, then becoming the undertow of a guitar loop. The last organ sequence gets more overdubs (and seems to slightly go out of phase), with an eerie wailing quality, then it’s sharply faded as the guitar signals for another scene-change. “Plan” was aptly titled: a blueprint for a song that never would be.

Recorded: (drum track) 3 May-ca. 15 May 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: Michael Tapp, “Walking Rush Hour,” NYC, October 2012.


How Does the Grass Grow?

July 16, 2015

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How Does the Grass Grow?

The Next Day was conceived and recorded in secrecy and there’s little of the contemporary in it. Supposedly. “We’re not very impressed with today’s music,” Tony Visconti said, in his role as Voice of Bowie in 2013. “We weren’t listening to anything current. It all sounds like it was made by the same person….It could be the same production crew, it could be the same singer, everybody is Auto-Tuned to death and the songs are very flimsy.”

That said, one recent album casts a shadow on Next Day: PJ Harvey’s Let England Shake, released on Valentine’s Day 2011, and the heavyweight of its decade so far. At times Harvey goes up country and sends back gnomic reports, other times she sings in a city square. So her piano study White Chalk is countered by Stories From the City, Stories From the Sea, a millennial New York album that elegized a New York about to die. (Harvey learned she’d won the Mercury Prize for Stories on 9/11/01, while stuck in a locked-down Washington D.C., watching tanks rumble around near her hotel.)

Let England Shake was another “public” album. Written in 2007-2009 and recorded over five weeks in 2010, its spark came when Harvey learned the Iraq and Afghanistan wars had their official photographers and writers. She wondered if a war could have an official composer. To Drowned in Sound, she said: “My whole thinking around the writing of the record was very much around the idea of ‘if I was appointed the official “song correspondent”, how would I bring the stories home, how would I relay them to people.‘ “(See Wire’s “Reuters“: “sooner or later/the end will arrive…this is your correspondent, running out of tape…”).

With the Bush/Blair wars as her backdrop, Harvey used another generation’s wars for imagery, particularly World War One (one text was Maurice Shadbolt’s Voices of Gallipoli, which inspired two lyrics) and its shorthand: trenches, barbed wire, gas, broken trees, shells, fields of poppies and blood. “In a way, I wanted [my] voice to be quite unobtrusive but just to relay the story,” she said. “Almost like a witness, who is just narrating the stories and bringing them back from the place that they happened.”

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A set of love songs between doomed young men and the island for which they’re dying, Let England Shake is choked in sediment, its songs patched with pieces of older songs. The chassis of the great Police break-up song “The Bed’s Too Big Without You” becomes the spine of “The Glorious Land,” where blood makes the grass grow. “The Words That Maketh Murder” winks at “George of the Jungle” (Bush of the Desert) and quotes “Summertime Blues” (Eddie Cochran’s United Nations joke seems sad here—for Cochran, the UN had meant authority, the faraway adult world, a place of prestige and power). “Istanbul, Not Constantinople” plays on xylophone during a lull in a battle. Said El Kurdi, recorded in 1920s Baghdad, wails as if he’s seen what’s coming; a British woman sings counterpoint 90 years later. More ghosts come and go—Niney the Observer‘s “Blood and Fire,” reveille trumpets, Russian folk songs, army chants, sea shanties, gabbled sounds of carnival nights and marching seasons.

Like Bowie, Harvey took her time in writing the album (though doing so in reverse,  first writing the lyrics, then coming up with songs) and she used her reliable small crew of musicians (John Parish and Mick Harvey, with whom she’d worked for decades). And possibly like Bowie, she’d first considered making the record in Berlin but wound up recording it down the street from her home. “[Berlin] was a city I was finding quite interesting at the time and wanted to work there,” she told The Quietus. “But I went over to Berlin and couldn’t find a place that felt right, and then, just coincidentally, the man who runs this church [in Dorset] as an arts centre approached me and said if I ever wanted to use it for rehearsing I could, because he liked my music and knew I lived nearby.”

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There are a few Next Day songs in the England Shake mode: songs crammed with old violence, history as haunting. The title track comes to mind, as does the bizarre “How Does the Grass Grow?” whose refrain is the closest Bowie’s come to the cracked sound of “The Laughing Gnome” in decades.

Where Let England Shake was small, portable and sufficient in sound, like an early response to Cameronian austerity (Harvey mainly used her two-man pit crew, each of whom could play any instrument and sing when needed), “How Does the Grass Grow?” is like an overfilled mailbox, with its array of feedback squalls, keyboard lines doubled by vocal dubs, mutters and laughs lurking in the margins of the mix, treated cymbal crashes, organ swells, a great two-note groan of a synth bass hook. The distortion applied to Bowie’s voice in the verses even suggests the bandpass-filtered vocals in Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” (a song also lurking in Bowie’s “Valentine’s Day”).

It likely began as a writing exercise in the Lodger vein, despite Visconti claiming the track “was very different, new-style Bowie.” Bowie started with a refrain from Jerry Lordan’s “Apache” (as performed by the Shadows), keeping the top melody while slightly altering the chords (so Lordan’s F-G-C/Am becomes F#6*-Ab-Bbm). Then he simply reversed the chord sequence to get his verse progression—Bbm-Ab-F#6. The key was a typical Bowie shadow-blend, a gloomy B-flat minor tonality with dreams of escape into D-flat major, giving the song a knotted-up tension that it can’t dispel even in the two guitar solos.

Bowie rewriting “Apache” recalls Iggy Pop’s claim that he and Bowie, on Lust for Life, had taken a bunch of old songs and messed around with them enough so that no one would recognize them anymore. Not quite the case here—Bowie left enough “Apache” in the mix to have to share co-composing credit with the Lordan estate.

The lyric’s some Eastern Europe of Bowie’s imagination: another of his war-bled Warsaws. The backdrop could be Bosnia or Hungary or Ukraine (the “official” Bowie words for the song appear to be “Balkan,” “burial” and “reverse”); the line about the village girls hail from a 1967 essay by Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana Alliluyeva, describing the Russian village of Zhukovka (“television antennas stick up from the gray, tumbledown roofs and the girls wear nylon blouses and sandals from Hungary. But the grass and birch forest have a sweet smell“). It’s life in the West’s broken mirror, with sandals from a country without a seashore, or wild boys riding cheap Latvian mopeds (the Riga-1 was the first model, ca. 1965, further grounding the song in the Sixties): kids making “a life out of nothing.”

These are minor details: the song mainly harps on sex and death (there’s a trysting place where “we struggled with our guns.”). Bowie sings like a fanatic wielding a megaphone, keeping to a small range of notes, his phrasing in the “Subterranean Homesick Blues” tradition of jamming in as many syllables as he can screw into a set of bars. The singer (a coward, “a white face in prison”) wants to reverse time so that “the girls would fill with blood”: the girls are slaughtered and he wishes he could somehow fill their veins full again, but it’s also a lurid menstrual image. Only the earth survives, its mud absorbing bones and blood and entrails. Blow a hole in the ground, and soon enough grass claims it; mow down a row of trees (which die like Spartans, standing firm in a line) and their corpses feed mosses.

The refrain “how does the grass grow? blood! blood! blood!” came from Bowie reading about military training camp chants. In Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, a variation on the line is part of the chant that R. Lee Ermey leads his troops in (see also Johnny Rico’s 2007 Afghanistan memoir Blood Makes the Grass Grow Green.) “It’s about the way the soldiers are trained to kill other soldiers…part of a chant they’re taught as they plunge their bayonets into a dummy,” Visconti said.

Almost three minutes into this loud, claustrophobic track, the tempo slows and a D major bridge begins, the song shaking out of a bad dream. Bowie sings as “Bowie” for the first time, sounding mournful, if a bit removed. Though more ghosts appear—there are hints of “Shadow Man” and “Under Pressure” in the phrasing—there’s a feeling of stolen beauty, a hard-won peace (or at least that a cease-fire’s been called). Then it’s a staircase fall into another guitar solo, more “Apache” refrains and blood chants. Dancing out in A major, hanging on Gail Ann Dorsey’s circular bassline, “How Does the Grass Grow?” ends by unearthing yet another old song: “Boys Keep Swinging.” Remember how that one goes: You can wear a uniform. Other boys check out you out, at least before they take aim at you.

Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 May-ca. 15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (vocals, overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day.

*The F-sharp chord’s made an F#6 (F#-A#-C#-Eb) because Bowie’s hitting an Eb note when singing over the chord. (A detail noticed by Clifford Slapper, to whom I’m indebted for puzzling out the song and noting the “Boys Keep Swinging” reference). Augmenting chords is central to the track: Gerry Leonard extends B-flat minor chords in the refrains by playing F, G, Ab and G guitar notes that make the underlying Bbms  consecutively, Bbm, Bbm6, Bbm7 and Bbm6. See also the keyboards augmenting D major chords in the bridge (playing A-F#-G#). (Thanks again to Clifford for spotting these.)

Top: Polly Jean Harvey, MBE, 2011; band, church, Dorset; British soldiers in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, 2011 (Reuters).


The Stars (Are Out Tonight)

July 9, 2015

wicdiv1

The Stars (Are Out Tonight).
The Stars (Are Out Tonight) (video).

At first, it sounds like a comeback single from some lost 1987. Mike Campbell-esque lead guitar; a Traveling Wilburys acoustic shuffle. The huh-huh-HUH-HUH vocal tag goes further back—an Elvis loop or maybe a hook filched from the grotesque UK #1 “Cinderella Rockafella.”

But in 2013 “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” stiffed: peaking at 102 on the UK singles chart, 21 in Billboard‘s US Adult Alternative Songs and in the low 80s in the Irish and Dutch charts. Some of it was simply timing—“Stars” came out seven weeks after “Where Are We Now?,” which had soaked up the “Bowie’s back” hype. Floria Sigismondi’s video for “Stars” (see below) earned a few “think” pieces but evidently didn’t move sales that much.

Had “Stars” come first (Tony Visconti thought it a contender for debut single), would it have made a stronger mark? Most likely, but there’s something off about the track, despite it sounding like one would expect Bowie to sound in 2013. Familiar enough in voice; a lyric with “stars” in the title; the guitars genteelly distorted: enough to stand out in the mix but not causing trouble.

It’s oddly fashioned, for one thing, being hung up on refrains and verses that blur into each other, sung over endless shifts between F# minor and D major chords (hinting at an A major key that never establishes itself). So when a “bridge” section finally appears at 1:30, triggered by a fresh chord change at last (an E major on “their jealousy’s spilling down”), it hits far more like a refrain. Some other diverting moves follow: a “Spanish”-style guitar break after the third verse; the bridge repeated and used to carry the song out.

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What I noticed is that he had a lot of vocal changes but the chords stayed the same for a long time,” Gerry Leonard recalled in 2013. “I thought, if we’re going to be playing this for a long time, it might be good to have development in it…have two or three different parts I could overlay over the same chords…hopefully find a way to be part of the dynamic of the song, kind of sculpt it a little bit.” So for his lead guitar lines, Leonard played with and against the underlying F-sharp minor chords, often sounding high E notes (and so extending the chord to an F#m7),or sounding an open string for tonal contrasts. David Torn added some radio squiggles for lead figures, winking in at the ends of verses.

The track’s compressed mix converts Steve Elson’s baritone saxophone and contrabass clarinet into a secondary bassline, if one played through a blown amp. Lines by a quartet of New York string players (Antoine Silverman, Maxim Moston, Hiroko Taguchi and cellist Anja Wood) sound like Mellotron figures, while backing vocals by Gail Ann Dorsey and Janice Pendarvis are blurred garnishes (by contrast, a struck bell in the guitar break shines out in the mix). The four-note descending hook in the bridges is likely Tony Visconti’s recorder but it could as well be played on a Korg Trinity. Everyone is acting in a costume they didn’t choose.

Bowie’s phrasing mainly keeps to a narrow range of notes, biting on syllables for his consonant rhymes (“stars are never far away,” “Brigitte and Jack” “stars must stick,” “behind their tinted,” “toss and turn at night”). He sounds theatrically aggrieved, like a prosecutor opening a case; on occasion he stumbles (deliberately) through a line—take the odd timing on “we will never be rid of these stars” at 3:08 or the loping way he first sings the full title line.

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One word Bowie used to describe The Next Day to the novelist Rick Moody was “pantheon” (other applicable words: “vampyric” and “succubus, “mystification” and “domination”). As it happened, in the following summer, another pantheon arrived. (Likely heralded in Pantheon Weekly, the tabloid that Bowie picks up in the song’s video).

Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + the Divine has a simple premise: every 90 years or so, a pantheon of a dozen gods appear on the earth. They captivate, have heaps of sex, are worshiped and die, all within the space of two years. These recurrences are meant to jump-start human creativity (it’s implied that Byron, Keats and the Shelleys were in a Regency-era pantheon).

The gods assume the form of whatever will garner the most worshipers in a particular era. So poets in 1820 and pop stars in 2013: Baal (an amalgam mostly of Kanye West and Jay-Z), Inanna (Prince), Amaterasu (Florence Welch with some Kate Bush), Minerva (some Grimes, some Gerard Way), Sakhmet (Rihanna), Woden (Daft Punk outfit, Rivers Cuomo personality) and so on. The morning star of the series is Lucifer, the Thin White Duke reborn in the body of a 20-year-old suburban woman (with a hint of “Sweet Dreams“-era Annie Lennox).

There’s a sense in Wic + Div that something’s going wrong in this recurrence. (Vague spoilers ahead.) Some gods are killed (apparently) ahead of their time, some fall into a sort of civil war and one of them wonders if this could be the last recurrence, that the human race may have no use for gods anymore. It’s the premise of modern celebrity made gorgeous metaphor: these once-anonymous people are no longer themselves, but become avatars of fame, to be loved, feared, shot at, jailed and hunted down. It’s Amy Winehouse, who starved and drank herself into the cartoon image of her music, and whose last concert before her death of alcohol poisoning found her stumbling on stage, the crowd screaming “sing!” at her. Though theatrically dead, Winehouse is still working, having joined the beautiful corpse company of Marilyn, Cobain, Morrison and Hendrix, her face on T-shirts and dorm room posters, worshiped on countless memorial Tumblrs.

luci

There are echoes in Bowie’s lyric, in which “stars” are figures of mystery and pity, sleepless desperate gods. (He sings a line of tabloid shorthand—Brigitte and Brad are easily enough identified, but Jack and Kate* are generic starnames, fit for 1920 or 2056.) Parasitic deities who need worshipers a bit too much, “they watch us from behind their shades” (a triple play on their sunglasses, the blinds of their mansions and their ghosts).

Once it had seemed easier. Bowie liked Andy Warhol’s concept of a “superstar” as being someone who’d convinced enough other people that they were a star. It was how he and his manager sold the American press in 1972 that an oddball who’d barely hit in his home country was somehow a rock celebrity equal to Jagger or Lennon. The premise eventually wore Bowie down but at least it was open to anyone with the gumption to go for it.

But in “Stars,” there’s a sense that stardom has become yet another type of 21st Century spec work, being on the clock whenever an employer needs you. It’s a job in which even the dead stars still have to put in their hours. Consumed by their workloads, the stars are left “sexless and unaroused” like porn actors off camera; they infest our dreams but envy our sleep.

It’s a stardom suited for a world in which the concept of “youth” seems to be eroding. A piece Tom Ewing wrote this week, inspired by the latest UK budget announcements, broke it down: more and more, the young are condemned to barely-veiled conscription. Take on massive debt to get an education, or live off your parents and be accused of being a parasite, or work without labor protections and even for free, to get all-important “exposure.” “The breaking of youth independence and autonomy, the formalisation of young adulthood for the working and lower-middle classes as a time of indenture or debt feels like turning social trends into social engineering, a return to a long-ago conception of Youth that damn well better know its place.”

This feeling is found in Wic + Div as well—the sense that the gods are being exhausted in this recurrence, that their hustle is becoming desperate, that their employer isn’t happy with their productivity. And that their bright, chaotic lives have become inconsequential in the world. They still have their worshipers and altars made to them, but they’re mostly projecting outward, getting little back from the crowd.

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Sigismondi’s video for “Stars” played another variation. Apparently inspired by Sophie Miller’s video for the Eurythmics’ “Beethoven,” it dresses Bowie and Tilda Swinton as an older, well-off suburban couple who are stalked, and eventually consumed, by their vampyric counterparts: a beautiful young celebrity couple.

There are mirrors within mirrors, like the use of Swinton, Bowie’s unearthlier counterpart for decades, and the Norwegian model Iselin Steiro, who’d dressed up as some classic Bowie characters for a spread in Paris Vogue in 2010. There’s the reference to Bowie’s work in The Hunger (the vampire couple play off Bowie and Catherine Deneuve’s nightclub-foraging vampires) and of course, on his characterization in the press as a stylistic vampire. It’s also Bowie having fun with the horrific idea that David Bowie Is Old, playing a cranky pensioner enraged by his next door neighbor singing “Jean Genie” at all hours.

You’d expect the video to mock the idea of settled domesticity, that Bowie’s line “we have a nice life” is meant as a joke. But it turns out to be quite true. The star couple simply wants to escape their circuit of limousines and paparazzi spreads and are happy to be found sitting on a sofa, watching other stars work on TV.

david-bowie-tilda-swinton

Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 May-ca. 15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (vocals, overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop, Human Worldwide, NYC. Released as a digital single on 26 February 2013 (UK #102).

Top: Gillen and McKelvie, The Wicked + the Divine (all panels from the first five issues, collected in The Faust Act); Bowie with Iselin Steiro, 2013; Bowie, Andreja Pejić, Saskia de Brauw and Swinton.

*wait, was Bowie a Lost fan? (An earlier draft of the lyric shows that Ms. Johansson was originally in the pantheon, as was “Bob”.)


Dancing Out in Space

July 1, 2015

nysnc

Dancing Out in Space.

A problem when discussing The Next Day as a complete work is that it isn’t quite one. Four versions of the album exist, as of today: the original 14-track CD/download; the “deluxe” edition, with three additional tracks (also the sequence of the 2-LP set); the Japanese issue, which adds another bonus track to the deluxe set; and The Next Day Extra, which includes a second CD with the aforesaid bonus tracks, plus four “new” bonus tracks and two alternate mixes. Bowie’s likely not done with it yet.

So it’s wound up a sprawling group of songs. Had Bowie released all of these tracks together in the analog age, he would’ve had a 3-LP set to rival George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass (and Next Day has a similar “back catalog clearout sale” feel to it). But Bowie’s taken advantage of the download/streaming era to erode the concept of a final, static “album.” The Next Day is more a fluctuating set of assorted tracks, its sequence owed to each listener’s budget or interest.

A track like “Dancing Out in Space,” in a tighter time, may have been slotted as a B-side or even scrapped, just another outtake in the vaults. Now it’s scattered on the floor with the rest of the toys: perhaps overlooked but still there, shining in its way.

What to say about it? It’s a well-made minor song. Its verses mainly shuttle between G major and E minor; its refrains are pegged on sets of parallel steps (on the “ooooohs”), first Db to Eb to C major, then Ab to Bb back to the verse’s G major. There’s a lassitude in its construction, with long stretches between vocals where nothing much happens.

An octave-doubled Bowie sings in a tone of jaunty hysteria, with a vocal arrangement that includes a touch of doo-wop bass in the refrains. Gerry Leonard and David Torn’s guitars are wintry colors; Gail Ann Dorsey and Zachary Alford rumble up a subdued “Lust For Life” beat for the refrains; the synthetic “harmonica” fills reek of 1988; a faint suggestion of piano shivers through the track’s last seconds.

The lyric, haunted by water imagery, can also seem like a set of Bowie crossword clues. The city of solid iron: Ferropolis, the German open-air excavator museum? Detroit? Bowie’s lover being as “silent as Georges Rodenbach could nod to the Symbolist writer’s Bruges-la-Morte, in which a man obsesses over a woman he believes is his late wife (the novel would influence Hitchcock’s Vertigo a half-century later).* Or maybe it’s Rodenbach’s ultra-Romantic tombstone in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, in which a patina bronze nude seems to be languorously rising from the grave, clutching a rose.

Call it a love song about a beautiful death (to dance out in space is to expire out in space, like a drowning swimmer), set in a shuttered world, like Rodenbach’s Bruges (a port city that lost its sea). Recall that Bowie used “vampyric,” “succubus” and “chthonic” to describe the album to the novelist Rick Moody. Rodenbach would’ve been flattered, though he may have raised an elegant eyebrow at Bowie rhyming “ghost” with “ghost.”

Recorded: (backing tracks) 3 May-ca. 15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (vocals, overdubs) spring-fall 2012, The Magic Shop, Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day.

Top: “In Sappho We Trust,” ” ‘Nysnc at Madame Tussaud’s, New York,” 2012.

* Translated literally as Bruges-the-Dead and more euphoniously as The Dead City, it was the basis for Korngold’s 1920 opera Die Tote Stadt. There was something of a Rodenbach revival in the 2000s, with some fresh English translations issued, which possibly caught Bowie’s interest.


Where Are We Now?

June 24, 2015

time

Where Are We Now?

The Wall was probably the most famous structure that will ever stand in Berlin…and if a monument can be decommissioned, that is apparently what happened to it.

Brian Ladd.

We Were Like a Museum Exhibit.

Title of a Wolf Vostell 1965 collage.

Wedding

geister

An older man, wearing a grey topcoat and knit cap, is walking through Berlin one winter morning. If you were to follow him, he would appear to be rambling for no obvious purpose, towards no apparent destination; just wending through neighborhoods, sometimes doubling back.

But if you were to watch his progress from the air, it would seem, over time, as though he was slowly stitching a pattern across the heart of the old city, making a fresh suture over an old scar.

Pankow

Berlin,_Grenzübergang_Bornholmer_Straße

We lived in a vacuum over a void.

Peter Schneider, on West Berlin.

Nothing was asked of West Berlin “beyond its own complicity in surviving.

Jane Kramer.

On the sunless, modestly-cold morning of the 8th of January, 2013, I walked the dog, made coffee, ate breakfast, checked the laptop. The blog, though not updated for a week, had some 20 new comments overnight; the twitter had at least as many notices; my mailbox was overflowing. I could only think the worst, and said to the dog: “Oh no, is he dead? And on his birthday, too.”

As it turned out, he had risen. At 5 AM GMT, Bowie’s website uploaded the video of “Where Are We Now?”, with the notice that one could buy the track on iTunes, as well as pre-order a new, unanticipated album. By the time the British workday started, the news had hit every media outlet, which gave Bowie’s return the treatment usually reserved for royal births and divorces. Each longitude of the Western Hemisphere woke up to the news in turn.

“It was his idea to just announce the album on his birthday and just watch the thing avalanche,” Tony Visconti told Rolling Stone. Bowie and Visconti had done a countdown in December, sending each other emails with subject lines like “two weeks eight hours.” At midnight in New York, Visconti sat at his computer to see “Where Are We Now?” pop up in the iTunes store. He’d produced the thing but couldn’t quite believe that it existed. It took about 15 minutes, he recalled, before fans realized what was happening and the first “holy shit!” posts appeared on message boards.

Bowie’s was among the first of the “surprise” album releases of the 2010s (MBV came later the same month, Beyoncé at the end of the year). Like the others (and a precursor, Radiohead’s The King of Limbs), The Next Day was a catalog artist gaming a broken system. Avoid the pointless hype cycle and throw a new album out into the world, generating scads of free press by leveraging the reputation that your former labels paid for.

Bowie pulled off his surprise because he only used musicians whom he knew and could trust (even then, he had them sign non-disclosure agreements) and he ran a tight ship: just Corinne Schwab and Bill Zysblat for logistics and finance; no office managers, no PR staff. At Sony, with whom he had a distribution relationship, he had no A&R supervision. The label was in the dark: Sony president Rob Stringer only learned Bowie had cut a new album in December 2012, when Bowie brought him into a studio to hear tracks. “Stringer said, ‘what about the PR campaign?’ and David said, ‘there is no PR campaign. We’re just going to drop it on 8 January’,” Visconti recalled. And so they did.

Weißensee

Turistas en el Tacheles, Berlin 2010.

I became a rock star. It’s what I do. It’s not my whole life.

Bowie, to a friend in Berlin, ca. 1977.

It could have been the beginning of a really boring career. You know, the typical rock star life cycle. So fortunately for me my right lung collapsed…I felt a great sense of relief, as if once again I’d been left off the hook.

Brian Eno, to Ian MacDonald, 1977.

He said: I know what it’s like to be dead. He said…did he? Oh that’s very nice indeed.

John Lennon, demo, 1966.

Of the “lost years” between Bowie’s heart operation in July 2004 and the first Next Day sessions of May 2011, many know little. He had stopped emailing a lot of friends after his heart surgery, even Visconti: in late 2006, Visconti was startled when Bowie popped in during a Dean and Britta session in NYC (“as much as I wanted him to sing on a track, I was too shocked to make my mouth work“). In the late 2000s, however, Bowie and Visconti began having semi-monthly lunches, during which Bowie said he had no interest in writing new music.

It wasn’t as if Bowie was in hiding (ever so often, the paparazzi would nab a fresh photo of a downtown-walking Bowie, armed with ubiquitous laptop bag). He cut the occasional guest-vocal (see the past two months’ entries) and even was in a studio in 2008 to record new vocals and overdubs for a revision of “Time Will Crawl.” He issued a statement praising Barack Obama’s victory; he spoke to the press as late as 2010, telling the Observer what allegedly was on his iPod (Champion Jack Dupree’s “Junker’s Blues” and John Adams’ “El Nino,” among others); in a New York Times profile of Iman, he said “I’m not thinking of touring. I’m comfortable.”

brl

As the empty years went on, the Bowie enterprise began to seem like a carnival which had shuttered for the season but would never open again. Fan websites were reduced to announcing the occasional reissue, or the death of yet another old Bowie friend or collaborator (Lesley Duncan, Natasha Kornilof, Derek Fearnley, Guy Pelleart), or the doings of Bowie tribute bands. “I really don’t know what he’s up to at the moment,” his bassist Gail Ann Dorsey said in early 2010. “I wish I could…I just hope, as much as anyone else, as a fan of music, that he returns.”

Rumors circulated that Bowie was ailing, that he’d contracted terminal cancer. It got to the point where Noel Gallagher lamented in 2011 that “I know [Bowie] hasn’t been very well, but we need him,” and where Chuck Klosterman and Alex Pappademas began preparing a Bowie obituary in late June 2012, after Grantland‘s editor got a solid tip that Bowie was on his deathbed.

Prenzlauer Berg

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Almost with one impulse the congregation rose and stared while the three dead boys came marching up the aisle, Tom in the lead, Joe next, and Huck, a ruin of drooping rags, sneaking sheepishly in the rear! They had been hid in the unused gallery listening to their own funeral sermon!

Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

As it turned out, he rather liked being dead.

For all intents and purposes, he had stopped being David Bowie. He was just David Jones, a wealthy late-middle-aged landowner, art collector, expatriate and dad, gassing on to his wife and daughter about whatever history or biography book he was reading (it’s a near-universal rule that by the age of 60, all men become bores about history) and watching police shows, whether American (The Shield), British (Foyle’s War) or French (Spiral).

It was as though he’d decommissioned himself. Here was a man who still led a public life—attending various charity galas with Iman—but who was no longer public. His biographer Paul Trynka, whose book published in 2010, speculated that Bowie had pulled a slow-motion disappearing act in the 2000s, and had retired without letting anyone know. His absence felt louder each year; his blank refusal to play the game anymore could seem an affront to some fans. Bowie was always supposed to be there, on the margins or in the wings, reacting, stealing, sometimes embarrassing himself, sometimes creating the future. Then he just stopped.

Until something brought him back. In early autumn 2010, while in London recording the Kaiser Chiefs’ The Future Is Medieval, Visconti heard from Bowie out of the blue. “He said, when you get back, do you fancy doing some demos with me?” Visconti told the Daily Telegraph. “There was no preamble, no warning. It was really weird.”

“Schtum” was the subject line of an email Bowie sent the guitarist Gerry Leonard (it was a German-sounding word meaning “keep mum” whose origins lay in the criminal world of Fifties Britain—it’s the sort of word you’d expect Bowie to use in an email). Like Visconti, Leonard had no clue that Bowie was considering making a record. “I was like, whoa! he’s going to do something?

And Sterling Campbell, the last of Bowie’s contacts, said “my relationship with David has always been like this—I just get a call out of nowhere and it’s great if it works out.” So he was used to sudden changes of face.From what I understand, he didn’t even wanna think about music for a number of years,” he told the NME. “Then all of a sudden, he’s got 20 songs he wants to record.”

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For a week in November 2010, Bowie, Leonard, Visconti and Campbell got together at 6/8 Studios in the East Village (they used Studio A, which you can rent for $50/hour today). For the first four days, Bowie brought in demos he’d made on eight- and 16-track digital recorders at home.

Because as it turned out, David Jones hadn’t shaken the habit of writing songs. To Visconti, “they were obviously things that had built up over the past 10 years, sketches he’d had all along,” complete with ideas for basslines and drum patterns. (“It seemed evident that he had been writing a lot—[it was as if] he was pulling ideas for songs from a hat,” Leonard concurred). Bowie would play a demo, had Leonard (back in his bandleader role from the Reality tour) transcribe a chord progression, and then asked the group to play their interpretation of his fledgling song.

On the last day, in a studio described variously as “a matchbox” and “a small grimy room,” they cut about a dozen full-band demos (Bowie played keyboards and sang guide vocals, mainly wordless melodies) on what Visconti called “a basic Pro Tools rig.” Bowie packed up, said his goodbyes. No one heard from him for another four months.

Mitte

IslBG

I wasn’t [in Berlin] for very long, only four months; one whole spring. But it was crazy. Really crazy. It was like a film of Fritz Lang’s. You had the feeling that all of life was being directed by Lang…There was a black cloud of hatred over the whole east end of the city…You felt the catastrophe coming.

Paul Bowles.

After the danger dissipated in Berlin, nothing was left.

Klaus Schultz.

At some point, he decided the demos were worth trying on a broader canvas. Bowie wanted to use the same crew to make backing tracks for a possible album, but with Campbell on tour with the B-52s in spring 2011, his Nineties drummer, Zachary Alford, instead got the nod. As did Gail Ann Dorsey. She hadn’t played bass on any Bowie album since Toy, in part because the producer was also an ace bassist, but Visconti told Dorsey that he wanted to concentrate on producing and not have to work in the rhythm section, too. David Torn, the “atmospheric” element of the Heathen and Reality albums, also came in.

Right at the start, the secret nearly leaked. Someone at the originally-booked NYC studio tipped off a freelance photographer, who called Bowie’s office asking to shoot the sessions. This prompted an eleventh-hour relocation to the Magic Shop on Crosby Street (conveniently, less than a ten-minute walk from Bowie’s home). Visconti was cagy to the studio about who he was recording, and Magic Shop owner Steve Rosenthal said “it’s not an exaggeration [that] we didn’t know what was going on until the day Bowie showed up.” (One assumes Bowie would have preferred to use his favorite NYC studio, Looking Glass Studios, but it had closed in 2009.) They would call Bowie’s project “The Secret” at the Magic Shop: “Is The Secret in today?”

Bowie and his musicians began recording on 3 May 2011, for about two weeks, in what would be “Block One” of the Next Day sessions. The players were all old hands: he knew their styles and what to expect from them (though he urged Dorsey to play fretless bass for the first time). It suggests he realized the new songs weren’t that dissimilar from his Heathen/Reality compositions, and that his new album could be like one he might have made in 2005. After all, he’d told both Leonard and Campbell during the Reality tour’s last leg that he was considering hustling the band into a studio right after the tour ended, in the hopes of cutting a road-hardened album like Earthling. Fate intervened.

The Next Day would be the most tentative, and the slowest-paced, album that he had ever made. Bowie kept stressing that the sessions were only an experiment, one he could well scrap. It was similar to how he’d pitched Low to his musicians in 1976. Yet Low had come together in about a month. The Next Day would take two years.

Gasmaske-Plakat-1979-

Alford described the sessions as being “matter of fact.” Bowie came in each morning, played them a home demo, then played the song’s full-band demo, then had the players start recording. (They were encouraged to ask him questions: the sessions had a seminar feel, with Bowie as a professor emeritus working with some former grad students.) There were no more than five takes for each song; they got through about two tracks a day.

They worked in the Magic Shop’s “live” room, Studio A, with no separation between instruments, barring some amp baffling. Bowie set up at a Baldwin piano, creating a work-station at which he could play a Korg Trinity (as on Reality), strum his old 12-string acoustic or use a digital mixer which he used to reference demos. Engineer Mario McNulty said Bowie and Visconti wanted a treated sound at the point of recording, so that in-studio playback would “sound like a record.” (This was Bowie’s long-preferred method—he’d been taken aback in early Young Americans sessions when he heard his untreated voice on tape for the first time in years). So McNulty, using the studio’s custom Neve 80 series wraparound 56-input console, applied EQ in each stereo channel and added generous compression on the vocal mikes, bass, guitar and drum tracks.

“Block One” produced about 20 tracks, of a variety of styles: Alford recalled cutting a “straight up country song,” while another was based on a blues riff, though the players were given the Eno-like instruction “not to make it sound like a blues.” Neither Bowie or Visconti were interested aping the sound of contemporary records (perhaps for the good: Bowie was talking up Mumford and Sons in the demo sessions), using instead for sonic context the Bowie back catalog and never-released outtakes, particularly from Lodger (see the upcoming “Born In a UFO”). Nine tracks from the session wound up on The Next Day or its bonus releases, but in May 2011, they were still only pieces of an ongoing experiment.

Tiergarten

wallover

So began the album’s desultory creation. Bowie would take away tapes, book the occasional overdub session, then go away again. He visited Leonard in Woodstock, NY, that summer and the two of them did some songwriting (coming up with “Boss of Me” and “I’ll Take You There” after Leonard scrambled to find a Roland TR-808 drum machine).

Around September or October 2011, Bowie organized another rhythm section date (call it “Block Two”) at the Magic Shop. As Dorsey was now touring with Lenny Kravitz, the storied bassist Tony Levin came in play with Leonard, Torn and Alford.

It was much the same mood as the spring session: listen to demos, take notes, play a few takes, “I’ll call you later.” (The tracks getting their start in this block included “Where Are We Now?,” “Boss of Me,” “I’d Rather Be High” and “God Bless the Girl.”)

brrrln

Around year-end 2011, there was a notable ebb in the album’s (already-tenuous) progress. Bowie was slowly working on lyrics and he’d spend over a year, in fits and starts, on his vocals. “In the beginning he was finding his voice,” Visconti said. “He’s not an opera singer, he doesn’t practice every day.”

Both Dorsey and Leonard said that around this time, they feared that Bowie might just deep-six the album, and keep silent for who knows how many more years. Brian Thorn, the Magic Shop’s assistant engineer, said “I had no idea if the album would even be released. I was prepared to sit on it for as long as I needed to.” Rosenthal summed up the general mood. “From beginning to end, this has not been a typical music business project. This has been like an art project that he’s created and is executing upon us all. I don’t think any of us really believed it was going to come out until we saw the song online.

If there had been a period of indecision, a turning point came when Bowie called up Earl Slick to do what he’d done since 1974: add some “rock ‘n’ roll” guitar parts. Contacted in May, Slick turned up at the Magic Shop in July 2012. “He never let me hear the demos,” Slick told Rock et Folk. “I played where he needed me. I always worked like that with him.”

Along with overdubbing guitar on the likes of “Dirty Boys,” Slick also helped cut some fresh songs on the spot with Visconti on bass and the now-returned Sterling Campbell. This last session (call it “Block Three”) was the start of the likes of “Valentine’s Day” and “Born In a UFO.”

So after two years of sporadic sessions, Bowie and Visconti had about 30 tracks. Those still needing work were earmarked as future B-sides or bonus releases (most of which have come out by now). Having winnowed the prospective track list down to 20, Bowie played with the sequencing for months, pulling “God Bless the Girl” on and off and on again (he finally slotted it as a bonus track on the Japanese issue).

The final sequence wound up being a three-part movement (paralleling its three-block creation). Tracks 1 to 6 were the “hits,” 7-11 the weird shit; the remainder was a bitter old man’s coda.

Kreuzberg

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Each Berlin is worlds distant from, and a stranger to, the other…indeed I have to admit that the Berlin of which I speak is actually not really Berlin anymore.

Georg Hermann, Kubinke, 1910.

Bowie came in one day and said, “I wrote a song about Berlin.” Visconti recalled.

He’d been kicking it around for some time, as Dorsey, who didn’t play in the song’s backing track sessions, recalled Bowie saying early on that he “had this idea of writing about his time in Berlin. That it was a very intense time for him.”

“Bowie in Berlin” had become, over the decades, among his most enduring characters, though at the time he’d taken pains to say that he was no longer playing a role. The rising critical eminence of the “Berlin” trilogy had wound up creating a myth as vivid as Ziggy Stardust’s.

It was Bowie singing “Heroes” at Hansa Tonstudio (which he’d portentously renamed “Hansa By The Wall” on the LP sleeve), setting off three microphones when moving to his apocalyptic register, while East German guards paced in their tower on the Wall. It was Bowie living with Iggy Pop on Hauptstraße, swapping clothes; Bowie biking around the city, unnoticed or ignored; making paintings of Pop and Yukio Mishima; dressing and wearing his hair as if he was an actor playing Christopher Isherwood in 1929; taking his breakfasts in the gay cafe down the street. Days at the Brücke-Museum, nights at the Dschungel or Chez Romy Haag.

The city was his sickbed, hospital, recovery ward, detox mansion; Berlin was where he went to vanish, and where he was found on the street seemingly every night, sometimes drinking himself oblivious in a bar. His estranged wife Angela thought it all ridiculous: he and Iggy dressing up like bohemian painters, or recreating scenes from Jules et Jim with Corinne Schwab; his label RCA found the work he made there indulgent, baffling and poor-selling, and wondered if he was sabotaging his career to reduce his ex-manager’s take of LP royalties.

But Berlin was reality, Bowie said, where America and Britain were fictions. John Lennon had once claimed that rock ‘n’ roll was real and everything else was unreal. Instead, Bowie had found rock ‘n’ roll to be the most unreal thing of all, a poison: Berlin was where he got free of it. He came out of the city in 1979 far different from the desperate man who’d taken refuge there in 1976. “David aged about 20 years in Berlin,” Mick Ronson once said.

geisterbahnhof

He travels all over the world, but you wouldn’t know it, because he doesn’t want you to,” Visconti said of Bowie today. An obvious question: did Bowie go back to Berlin in the late 2000s? Walk through Schöneberg again, visit Hansa, catch a train at Postdamer Platz? Stay in the hotel on Nürnberger Straße which was once the Dschungel? After all, his nostalgic drives through Brixton and Bromley in the early Nineties had sparked The Buddha of Suburbia. Did a similar visit inspire “Where Are We Now?”

Another speculation (offered by Momus): did Bowie and Visconti ever consider making his comeback record at Hansa? It would have made the perfect last turn of the circle, a lost man returning to the city he’d tried to get lost in, and maybe the symbolism was a bit too perfect. Plus, keeping the secret from a city of Germans would’ve been harder than doing so with a few New York engineers and his old touring band. After all, it was getting harder to go missing in Berlin these days.

Freidrichshain

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Thomas Kunja, an East Berliner who escaped to West Berlin several years ago and now distributes Electrolux vacuum cleaners, knows exactly what they’ll buy. “A video recorder–half already have color TVs,” says Kunja. “And everybody will take a trip.” Why? “What do you do when you get out of jail? You run. You have to prove you’re really out with a trip west. After that, people need everything: a decent car, decent kitchen stuff, a decent rug. If only 1 percent of them want a decent vacuum cleaner, I’m going to be rich.”

Newsweek, “The Wealth of a Nation,”  July 1990.

One night in 1997, I was at a party on the Upper West Side in NYC. A German man, standing alone, was looking offended by how dull the party was. I began talking to him, said I’d always wanted to go to Berlin. “Berlin?” he said, with some disgust. “Munich is where it is now. Berlin is dead! Dead!”

The Berlin of “Heroes” is deep in the grave now. The Wall is gone except for a few scruffily-maintained parks. The old city districts have been consolidated; some streets have new names. The battered, half-empty neighborhoods are being gentrified. Berlin’s even back to being a capital: Germany once again claiming the alien city on the Spree as its centerpiece, despite the fact that many Germans always have found Berlin a bit suspect, and some back in the early Cold War had wished the Russians had taken the whole place.

Agata Pyzik wrote in her Poor But Sexy that “Berlin is an Eastern city, by geography, spirit, architecture and expression. Yet it remains half-Western by politics and history.” During the Cold War, divided Berlin was a stage-set battlefield, the front line where the West and East sported their colors. The city itself was an island, a prison (West Berlin the little prison surrounded by the big prison), a mental ward. Berlin lived on its nerves, a city “so restless at night that even the animals in the zoo pace around,” as the British diplomat Harold Nicolson once said of it.

So where was it now? A creaky voice starts recounting a story, but it’s not much of a story—he forgets where he’s going after a line. “Had to get the train from Postdamer Platz,” he begins, not quite getting the accent right. A tourist, maybe. “You never knew...that I could do that,” with an air of faint amazement. It suggests he may be singing to a ghost, someone who didn’t outlive the Wall. The Postdamer Platz of “Heroes”-era Berlin was a wasteland, a stopped portal—the train station was a ghost stop on the S-bahn, a station that you only saw in passing (and which few East Germans ever saw). And today you can go underground and catch an eastbound train without giving it a second thought. Tens of thousands of people a day in Berlin perform what would have been impossible in 1989.

The man rummages up other names, as if seeing if anything rings a bell: the ghost’s not talking. The lost Dschungel club on Nürnberger Straße; even the department store KaDeWe (which would be like writing a song about post 9/11 New York and talking about Macy’s).

And 20,000 East Germans crossing Bösebrücke (again, it’s a tourist’s formal language—a German likely would have said Bornholmerstrasse) one autumn night in 1989, fingers crossed, fearing it might be a trap, that the guards will open fire on them. But no, out into the West they go, puncturing a hole in the Wall, soon followed by other holes, soon followed by no Wall at all.

Could it really have fallen apart so easily? The end of divided Berlin was like the end of Alice in Wonderland, with Alice standing up and saying “you’re nothing but a pack of cards!” and the Queen of Hearts howling in paper outrage. Maybe all that you ever needed to do was walk across the bridge, fingers crossed.

Treptow

Machen auf Demo

In the bars and clubs of [1987] West Berlin things felt relentlessly trendy. I kept running into Blixa Bargeld everywhere. I remember going to a club (I think it was called the Beehive) and seeing people with miniature record players strapped to their heads. I’d never seen people that self-consciously Dada before anywhere!

Momus.

The writer Christopher Isherwood went back to Berlin once after the war, in 1952, “to do one of those Berlin-revisited things for the Observer.” The city was still in shambles. “Everything was very much smashed up. They simply pushed the rubble to the sides of the streets. I wonder what became of that rubble?

The rubble was the pulverized bits of Wilhelmine and Weimar Berlin, all the cornices and stoops and windowpanes and picture frames of the lost city of Isherwood, Brecht, Sally Bowles and the Landauers, of a city bombed to pieces during the war. The detritus was swept up, dumped in piles, was carted off to form three great hills in the outskirts of Berlin. In the Grunewald Forest, the highest pile became Teufelsberg, on which the Germans planted trees and shrubs and built a ski jump. The Americans built a radar station atop it.

It’s how Berlin has always adapted: junk what’s been ruined, build over the rest. Most cities in the West would have likely tried to preserve the Wall, turn it into some city-long memorial park. The Germans chipped it down, hauled it off, sold some bits, threw some in the garbage. Berlin seems impervious to nostalgia, so it’s an inspired setting for a nostalgic Bowie song. Walking the dead, he sings, but he might as well have said walking on the dead, because the city has likely paved over thousands of bodies.

My friend Michael Dumiak, who’s from South Carolina, has lived in Berlin since the early 2000s. “You hear lots of Spanish and Italian and American English in the streets these days.The Bowie / Pop myth is strong here, but he wasn’t here that long, maybe didn’t need to, they already loved him so much here (see Christiane F.) I guess probably they wouldn’t bug him; it was a whole island city tense with military and full of arty misfits. And cheap. The place does make an impression on you. They’re gradually repainting everything—check it out while you still can!”

Or as regular commenter “Crayon to Crayon,” another current Berlin resident, says: “It’s an amazing city to be poor in. And it feels like you have far more freedom than in any other big city I’ve lived in…There is a palpable feeling that things are changing slowly for the worse as developers get their hands on more of the city and rents go up. But it is still 20 years ahead/behind of the rest of Germany and, say, London or Paris. I’m not planning on leaving any time soon.”

Neukölln

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Even at the demo stage, Gerry Leonard was struck by a song known only as “067,” the file’s name on Bowie’s digital recorder.

There are beautiful changes to it,” he said. “He had these chords on his keyboard. David is an amazing writer, but he’s not a schooled guy, he just goes by his ear.” Talking of song structures, Bowie would typically say “the middle bit” or “the other bit” when referring to a bridge or chorus.

Leonard took Bowie’s keyboard progression and transferred it to guitar, writing down chords as he went. There was a verse that slowly circled, like a man walking back and forth along a street—Fmaj7 (“had to get”) to Dm/G (“Potsdamer”). An odd seesaw movement—Db/Eb (“never knew that”), Eb/Db (“that I could”)—that hints at a vault into an Ab major key but instead sinks back to the home chord, F, now with a C bass note (“do that”). The verse sags off, but grandly: G/C (“just walking the”), Ebm/C (“dead”), closing on a C7 chord, the dominant chord of the song’s F major key, soon resolved by another return home to F.

Then there was a simple refrain, just descending F-Em-Dm-C. Another verse, but cut shorter; another refrain, but now opening up, blossoming into a lengthy outro that slightly altered the descending set of chords to F-Dm-C/E-C, repeating again and again to the fade.

It was a typical Bowie construction, as the song is odder than it may first appear to the ear. Its progression is a slow, listless struggle between F major and C major, with the former seeming to rule the verses and the latter the refrains, though their claims are far from settled. By contrast there’s a severity to its structure: a sense of not wanting to waste time. Take the slam right back to the verse after the refrain, where the ear expects a solo or a recapitulation of the intro sequence, or the no-nonsense move to the outro after the second refrain.

Bowie and Visconti kept the track sparse, particularly in the context of the other Next Day tracks: it’s just carried by Leonard’s lead guitar, Bowie’s piano and synthesizer lines (and some Henry Hey piano overdubs in the outro), Levin’s bass and Alford’s drums. At first just Alford’s drum pattern keeps the song moving forward, as Leonard and Bowie augment chords and Levin is a torpid foundation. The song only takes flight as it ends—Alford shifts to a martial snare pattern and Leonard starts to elaborate on pieces of Bowie’s vocal melody, arpeggiating chords and then moving down his guitar neck, wringing higher and higher-pitched notes, slowly weaving a line that’s more mournful than Bowie’s vocal. Words fail to do it justice: listen here.

Tempelhof

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People think you have to remove everything to make a nice habitat. This is not the best idea. The grasshopper likes the concrete here.

Ingo Kowarick, on Templehofer Field.

“Where Are We Now?” made an odd choice for a opening single, Visconti thought. He and other players took pains in pre-release interviews to stress how anomalous the song was, and that much of the rest of the album was uptempo, guitar-fattened and loud.

Issuing this as the first “new” Bowie song in a decade was a feinting maneuver, and perhaps even something of a macabre joke, much as how Bowie showed up at a 2005 awards show dressed as if he’d been in a car crash. If the world believed Bowie to be on death’s door, well, here he was croaking this somber song about his lost youth, as if he was dictating a will. Final curtain stuff. Yet even the fragility of his voice was an old trick. “That’s a vulnerable voice he has used time and time again,” Visconti noted, offering “Fantastic Voyage” as an earlier example. “It’s part of his technique, to sing that way. He put that voice on like he’s vulnerable, but he’s not frail.”

The ploy worked, for some. “Elegiac” was common in reviews, e.g.: “the only one that moved me was the elegiac “Where Are We Now?”, which has a haunting Berlin cabaret feel to it,” wrote Rod Dreher of the American Conservative, upon hearing the album. “It sounded good, but it also sounded right for a 66-year-old man. If you’re still trying to rock as hard at 66 as you did at 26 and even 36, you’re not maturing… not every genre is equally suited to one’s maturity. It’s just that Bowie sounds so much more — what’s the word? — credible on the brooding, pensive “Where Are We Now?” than on the harder stuff on the record.

“Where Are We Now?” is the song Bowie is supposed to be singing at age 66. By this age, you are supposed to be left stranded in time, to be burdened by great sacks of memory. It’s what the young expect of the old; it’s the task they charge the old with. In a world where the past is considered an embarrassment, the old are left as the past’s sad representatives, sexless and voiceless ambassadors, fit for the young to ignore. “When they die, we will move forward,” the young say. The old die, and we don’t.

So there’s an irony in the song. Its lament is removed, abstract; its narrator isn’t “Bowie” as much as it’s the voice of a man whose Berlin memories seem to have been derived from a few old Time magazines and Wikipedia searches. Bowie took the title from his son’s movie Moon: there, “Where Are We Now?” is the start of a promotional film celebrating a beautiful future. In the song, Bowie asks a question he doesn’t answer, only offering the beautifully Zen the moment you know, you know you know.

The promise of the outro opens up the song, Bowie offering a promise of endurance against the fading memories of the verses. As long as there’s sun…as long as there’s fire. Yet Bowie never finishes the phrases. As long as these endure…well, what else will? Me and you, he finally says, but we’re  not going to last much longer. Even the elements fade. One day the sun will wink out, and fire (usually a man-made thing, after all) will have gone well before that. A man looks at the ground and up in the sky for something that’ll be there after he’s gone. Yet the more he thinks about it, he’s not quite sure what will stand. The Wall was made of concrete, and look, they broke it down with chisels and hammers.

Schöneberg

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All that was left was to shoot a video. Bowie chose Tony Oursler, whom he’d worked with in the Nineties, and it was filmed in Oursler’s New York studio. In a cluttered loft, Bowie’s and Jacqueline Humphries’ faces are video-projected onto two lumpen mannequins sitting on a pommel horse, while playing on a screen behind them are film clips of contemporary Berlin—Haupstrasse, KaDeWe, Potsdamer Platz, the Reichstag. Bowie’s face looks like a sad turtle’s. He’s still lip-syncing, though it seems like his head’s been stuck in a fishbowl; he comes off like some misshapen laboratory transplant who’s still valiantly following directions. Humphries (an artist Bowie admired, as well as being Oursler’s wife) was chosen in part because she resembled Corinne Schwab, who might as well have been conjoined to Bowie during the Berlin years.

Bowie came up with the entire concept: the linked dummies, the piles of junk, what should be playing on the screen. “It was a crystal vision of what it was going to look like,” Oursler said. “It was really his conception. I was completely flattered that he wanted to come to my cave and fulfill this.”

Towards the end of the clip, you see the “real” Bowie at last, trim and impassive, wearing a “Song of Norway” t-shirt (perhaps referencing a film that his longago girlfriend, Hermione Farthingale, had acted in), watching the apparatus at work. It’s a visual analogue for the entire making of The Next Day: Bowie, having sorted through piles of discards (like the rubble of postwar Berlin), has finally set up a dummy figure and screens his “public” memories behind it, like he’s got an installation at the Whitney. It’s as if to say: here, this is your “Bowie” now, so take him: I’m staying on the sidelines.

Bowie now has “this kind of cross between a John Hurt look and like George Smiley…a wounded arty kind of anonymous spook look,” as Dumiak told me, which I found an inspired observation. Bowie as the spy who stayed out in the cold, someone like Bill Nighy’s Johnny Worricker, an old British spy who’s become a man of honor just by standing still while the world corroded around him.

Hauptstraße 155

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Things go on and become other things. The whole character of the country has changed beyond recognition since my childhood. One always thinks everything’s got worse—and in most respects it has—but that’s meaningless. What does one mean when one says that things are getting worse? It’s becoming more like the future, that’s all. It’s just moving ahead. The future will be infinitely “worse” than the present; and in that future, the future will be immeasurably “worse” than the future that we can see. Naturally.

Paul Bowles.

It is the evening of the 8th of January, 1977. Bowie and Iggy Pop, Romy Haag and Corinne Schwab are in a West Berlin nightclub to celebrate Bowie’s 30th birthday.

A few photographs, taken by Andrew Kent, are all that remain of that night. Bowie and Iggy, as often in Berlin, sport near-identical outfits; Haag is the most beautiful woman in the room. The look of the club, the Sally Bowles costumes of the waitresses, even the texture and lighting of the photographs, all seem meant to invoke a common memory of decadent Weimar cabaret.

But the expressions on Bowie and Schwab and Pop are something else. They look gleeful, even goofy; they seem like kids on holiday, or students taking a semester abroad and seeing how far their dollars and pounds will go in a battered city.

A German interviewer, around the turn of the century, asked Bowie where he’d lived in Berlin, and Bowie said immediately: “Hauptstrasse 155 in Schöneberg.” The interviewer was startled. “You still remember it after 25 years?.” “I will never forget it,” Bowie said to him. “They were very important years.”

Haag, upon hearing “Where Are They Now?,” said Bowie sounded homesick. He’d only lived in Berlin for little more than a year, once you account for his tours and travels in the late Seventies. But Berlin was the place he’d run away to, and it was the city he had to leave when he had to get back to work, to get things done. Berlin was the last place he was young.

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It is the morning of the 8th of January 2013. David Bowie is 66, and has released a new song.

********

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. September 2011, The Magic Shop, Soho, NYC; (vocals, overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop and Human Worldwide, NYC. Released 8 January 2013 as an MP3 file (886443826403) (UK #6).

Sources: Over 30 articles and TV/radio interviews provided information and quotes for this piece; the most valuable included Alexis Petridis and Kate Connolly’s features in The Guardian (12 January 2013), Andy Greene’s interviews of most of The Next Day musicians for Rolling Stone in January-February 2013 and Jerome Soligny’s similar work in Rock et Folk (March 2013), Barry Nicolson’s in-depth chronology/interviews for the NME (2 March 2013), Gerry Leonard’s wonderful songwriting seminar at Xmusic in Dublin, 31 March 2013; Simon Goddard and David Buckley’s pieces in the March 2013 issues of, respectively, Q and Mojo.

I’m indebted to the personal recollections of past and present Berliners Momus, Crayon and, especially, Dumiak, to whom this entry is dedicated.

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Photos: top to bottom: Dennis Skley, “Time Isn’t Passing,” 2012; Michael Dumiak, “map of former geisterbahnhoefe [ghost stations]”;  Bundesarchiv Bild, “Crowds crossing the Bösebrücke at the Bornholmer Straße border crossing on 18 November 1989″; Montecruz Foto, “Mira la nada: Turistas en el Tacheles, Berlin 2010”; John Spooner, “Berlin Wall, 1978”; Chris Carter, “TG at Checkpoint Charlie, 1980”; Georgie Pauwels, “Sky Over Berlin,” 2013.

David Bowie Archive, “Gasmask Street Poster, 1979”; Raphaël Thiémard, “Fall der Mauer, 1989”; Urbanartcore.eu, “Guy Fawkes in Berlin, 2012”; ‘Kadrik,’ “May Day, Berlin, 2012”; Matthias Rhomberg, “Ghost Station [Nordbahnhof], 2010”; Rolf B., “Berlin Gropiusbau Landing, 1977”; ; H. Fuller, “Madchen auf Demo,” 2010; Rainer Wieczorek, “Neuköllnerstrasse,” 1977; Dschungel, ca. early 198os (unknown photog); ‘Michael’, “Bahnhof Schoeneberg Wannseebahn,” 2010; Andrew Kent, Bowie’s 30th birthday, 1977; Jimmy King, Next Day sleeve photo; Bowie listening to playback at Hansa, 1977.


The Duncan Jones Films

June 3, 2015

Moon (opening sequence, trailer, 2009).
Source Code (trailer, 2011).

Q. You have a son and his name is Zowie?
DB: One of his names.
Q. Is there a meaning to Zowie?
DB: No.
Q. And how old is he?
DB: Seven-and-a-half.
Q. Does he look like you?
DB: Yes.
Q. Which bit?
DB: Um, not the eyes (laughs). He’s blond and very lively. He’s not interested in music at all.
Q. He’s not going to take after you?
DB: No, he likes mathematics (laughs)
.

Bowie, interview in Japan, December 1978.

Searching for the father in the work of the son risks diminishing both. One easily makes the father a thick cloud of influence, burnishes the son into a mirror. Here we go, anyhow.

Because there are parallels, and extensions and variations on common themes, in David Bowie’s songs and in the films of Duncan Jones. Especially as the latter fill a void: Bowie’s absence neatly coincides with the releases of his son’s first two feature films. Bowie keeping out of the spotlight also let Jones establish himself as an artist. After all, there was a Bowie hard at work in public during 2008-2012; he just wasn’t the rock singer.

There’s a generational symmetry. Bowie’s father had wanted a life in the entertainment business but lost much of his savings in an ill-fated nightclub. Instead, he supported Bowie’s musical ambitions, hoping his dreams would come to fruition in his son. They did, although sadly Bowie’s break didn’t happen until after Haywood Jones’ death in 1969.

And Bowie was a pop singer who dreamed of being a director. He’d taken various film roles, he said, because he wanted in on the trade secrets—working with Nicolas Roeg and Martin Scorsese would let him see how masters shot a film. Thus armed, he’d make his own films. The David Bowie Is exhibit shows just how detailed Bowie’s plans were: the storyboards and scale model work for the Diamond Dogs and Ziggy Stardust films that would never be made. (Instead, Bowie made albums as if he was a director: having his “actors” improvise in the studio from his scenarios, then piecing together a “storyline” in the vocal booth.)

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As it turned out, Bowie was raising a director. He brought his son to various soundstages and location shoots, with Labyrinth (shot when Jones was 14) a high note, and on The Hunger, director Tony Scott let the 11-year-old Jones shoot with a “wild camera,” roaming around the set during takes (Scott reportedly wound up using some of Jones’ footage). Bowie screened countless films with him—whenever there’s a blank spot in a biography during the late Seventies or Eighties, Bowie’s likely in Switzerland watching movies with his son. Making movies, too: “One of the things we were always doing together as a hobby was filming stuff, shooting on 8mm cameras and using tiny little editing systems to cut together Smurf movies,” Jones said in 2006. “I had these Smurf and Star Wars figures and would do one-stop animation with them. I was six or seven.”

Wary of the press, as he’d been a paparazzi target since infancy, Jones even asked in early newspaper interviews that a childhood shot of him be used, so that he wouldn’t be recognized on the street. He was adamant on making his own way in film, not dropping his father’s name to ease his way into productions. (That said, being the son of a rock star does help with some financing: among the producers of Moon were Bill Zysblat, Bowie’s longtime financial adviser, and Trudie Styler, aka Mrs. Sting.)

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You know, it was work. Dad was working. And it was like any kid going to watch his dad at work, no matter what they do. We were just waiting for the concert to be over so we could go home. I could hear the noise up front but I’d spend most of my time hanging out with the roadies and playing with them.

Jones, interview, 2011.

After getting a degree in philosophy at the College of Wooster, Jones entered Vanderbilt’s PhD philosophy program in 1995. Two years in, he was “miserable” and wanted to make films instead (likely not the first philosophy doctoral student to reach this conclusion). “I had this kind of epiphany, that this was what I was supposed to be doing. This hobby of filmmaking from my childhood—this was what I should pursue,” he told Vanderbilt’s alumni magazine.

He enrolled in the London Film School, apprenticed as (again) a cameraman for Tony Scott and as an assistant director on commercials made by Walter Stern. By 2006, he was directing his own commercials—his debut being a notorious one for French Connection in which two women kung-fu fight, rip off each other’s clothes and make out. Loudly exploitative, the commercial did showcase Jones’ developing style, a postmodern “realism”–the performers aren’t models or actresses but stunt women, doing their own moves; the soundtrack juxtaposes cartoonish sound effects with a “medieval” aria (composed by Mark Sayer-Wade, with a Jones libretto).

Jones’ 2002 short Whistle (it’s on the Moon DVD) suffers from the typical student film’s stiffness in shots, edits and performances. Yet Whistle has the central Jones scenario in place: a man, isolated in a remote place, being manipulated by “off-stage” forces, with his emotional life used as leverage. An assassin, based in a Swiss chateau, dispatches various people via drones. He gets assignments from an elegant old man located off-site; his mental state is monitored by his rather robotic wife. A killing goes awry, with the target’s wife and daughter becoming collateral damage, leading the assassin to have a crisis of faith. He tries to quit and escape but winds up becoming the next target for the drones. Despite the lead character’s epiphanies, the company stays in business (Jones’ films all end this way, much as how weddings usually close a Shakespeare comedy).

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Moon2009
Moon: Sam, packed in a box

Jones’ studies at Vanderbilt entailed “applying artificial intelligence and morality to sentient machines. Very sci-fi. I was trying to get ahead of the game, ready for when our robot masters arrived,” he once said. He read Robert Zubrin’s 1999 Entering Space, which analyzed the potential for humans to colonize the solar system (and which has a chapter on how the moon’s Helium-3 deposits could fuel nuclear fusion projects on Earth; mining Helium-3 is the job of Sam Rockwell’s character in Moon). Jones used the book as the starting point for Moon, which he wrote in the mid-2000s and shot in 2008.

Made for $5 million on a 33-day shoot, Moon was one of the most impressive directorial debuts of the 2000s and the decade’s best “hard SF” film. He wrote the script with Nathan Parker (“I fucking hate first drafts,” Jones said in 2009. “I write extensive, usually 20- or 30-page treatments and beat lists, and then I hand it over to the writer I am working with to get my first draft done, then I alternate drafts with the writer“), with Sam Rockwell in mind as the lead, and basically sole, actor (the only scene in which Sam physically interacts with another human being is in a dream sequence).

In Moon, Jones’ situates Sam in a “realist” environment—the moonbase has a compact, visually coherent floor plan and is depicted as being a bit grimy and worn-down—with a post-modern backdrop. Moon relies in part on the viewer’s memory of earlier SF films. There are visual references to Outland, Alien, Silent Running and 2001, while Jones and Rockwell used David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers to map how Rockwell’s character could play off his identical twin clone.

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Moon: Gerty, sympathetic God

And of course, there’s “Space Oddity.” It’s as though Moon is Jones remaking his father’s breakthrough hit by moving it into a more remote key, adding some new overdubs and a different outro. Ground Control and Major Tom are, respectively, played by Gerty (a movable computer voiced by Kevin Spacey) and Sam, the astronaut who cracks up and “leaves the capsule” by escaping the moon base (though tellingly Sam returns home; he doesn’t drift off into space).

Where “Space Oddity” finds the rational can-do American mind collapsing in the face of the void, blanking out, with the body drifting off, Moon is infused with meaning upon meaning: it’s man symbolizing empty space, in the way that the harvester robots have transformed the lifeless moon surface into an industrial complex.

Take the boatload of Christian symbolism. Sam has named the moonbase’s four robot harvesters after the Gospel writers: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John (a later shot discloses that Luke, the harvester on the blink for the whole film, has been renamed “Judas” on a post-it note). Sam’s wife is Tess, from Theresa, a name derived from the Greek therizo, “to harvest,” while his daughter is called Eve (a bit too on the nose). Sam (Samuel) himself has a biblical name (literally “name of God”), one of an Old Testament prophet; Sam ends Moon by returning to earth to bring the Good (?) News.

Even the film’s plot is an annunciation (Sam realizes something’s wrong with his reality, discovers his existence is false, the truth revealed to him by a “god,” i.e., Gerty) followed by death and multiple resurrections (Sam is grievously wounded, prompting Gerty to awaken a “Sam 2” clone to replace him; Sam 2 temporarily repairs the dying Sam 1; the two eventually activate a “Sam 3”). Jones shoots each Sam clone waking up several times, with Sams 2 and 3 first “awakening” in a sparse white room, the base’s vestibule between life and death.

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Moon: “I thought you died alone/ a long long time ago”

Sam 1: I’m the original Sam!
Sam 2: I’m in the same boat, asshole.

Christianity is just one way of viewing the film; its most obvious (too obvious?) level of interpretation. Jones once said he wanted the sequence of Sam clones to play with “the idea of a confrontation between yourself and a different version of yourself. I just liked the notion of maybe the me from now being able to talk to me from a younger period; of how different I am now to how I was.”

Again, it’s Jones playing deep into Bowie territory: the idea of piecing together a self from a mess of other selves (some yours, some others); repeated themes of duality and schizophrenia; alternating moods of radical reinvention and eternal continuity (like breaking apart your established sound to make a “Speed of Life,” then including the “Laughing Gnome” riff in it).

Moon sounds these themes in subtle ways, aided by Rockwell’s precise performance (you never lose track of which Sam he’s playing in a shot). There’s the prospect that the idea of a unique individual consciousness is a cruel joke (each “morning” a clone’s alarm playsThe One and Only” by Chesney Hawkes. (“And yet you try to make me forget / Who I really am / Don’t tell me I know best / I’m not the same as all the rest.”). Or that much of what makes you “you” is possibly false information programmed by others (consider how many of your childhood memories are actually yours, and how many are stories your parents have told you, perhaps validated by a few photographs).

So Sam, who thinks he’s serving a three-year stint on the moonbase and will soon return home to his wife and young daughter, instead finds he’s one in a long series of clones, and that his memories are those of the original Sam, who may have never left Earth. “His” wife is actually long dead; his daughter is a teenager (who has grown up knowing the “real” Sam, so she’s not even missing her father). His life is that of a plastic toy kept in a box.

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Moon: death and resurrection

There’s an optimistic reading to the film’s close. Gerty, rather than going the way of the usual murderous super-computer, instead helps lead Sam to enlightenment. And the Sam clones enact the range of human experience: the dying Sam 1 breaks down into a petulant adolescent whereas the “young” Sam 2 quickly matures, helping his “father” to accept his end and die with honor. The clones even act as the parents of “Sam 3,” the clone activated to run the moonbase: Sam 1 chooses to die for his child while Sam 2 goes to earth to fight for him.

I am fascinated by the idea that the person you think that you are is very different from what other people see you as,” Jones said. Moon ends with a man falling to earth. Not, as in Bowie and Nicolas Roeg’s film, an extraterrestrial looking to save his home by coming to ours but a manufactured human coming “home” to a planet he’s never seen but that he remembers in his dreams.

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Jones’ follow-up was 2011’s Source Code, based on a Ben Ripley script developed years before Moon. It’s a less personal film, which Jones said he took in part to prove he could helm a mainstream picture, and he had some frustration with the shift in scale. Where Moon was the work mostly of him, his producer and Rockwell, Source Code had multiple layers of producers and some mid-level studio money behind it (a $32 million budget). Jones also had to contend with a script in which a tenuous love story attempted to flower in the midst of a 24-esque “beat the clock” terrorist scenario.

That said, there are a number of similarities between the films (its star, Jake Gyllenhaal, had wanted Jones to direct after seeing the first few minutes of Moon). Again, a man kept in isolation is being lied to by his employer in order to keep him concentrated on his work. Gyllenhaal is Colter Stevens, a paraplegic, barely-alive Afghanistan war veteran whose brain is linked to “source code,” which allows a government lab to “insert” his mind into the last eight minutes of another man’s memories. This man, a teacher named Sean, was killed by a terrorist bomb; Stevens is repeatedly resurrected in the man’s body so that he can find who set the bomb, and thus let the government prevent a further atrocity. (As a tip of the hat to Moon, before the storyline is revealed, Sean’s friend/love interest Michelle Monaghan’s cel phone rings to Hawkes’ “One and Only”).

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Jones’ hand is most evident in shot composition and set details. Take the color scheme: blue unites Monaghan, Stevens and Stevens’ sympathetic army supervisor (the Gerty of the film), played by Vera Farmiga (her boss, Jeffrey Wright’s character, an amoral careerist scientist, wears brown—he’s out of the circle). There’s a hierarchy within the blue unity: Stevens wears a darker blue than Sean, the man he’s inhabiting, while Farmiga and the train conductors, the authority figure, wear shades of black-blue.

Like the moonbase, the main set of Source Code is a bottle world: the fishbowl of a two-tiered commuter train car (a life-sized set that Jones had constructed, built on a gimbal, rather than use an existing train car). The other two main environments are equally enclosed: the technology-dominated government base, code name “beleaguered castle” (it has more glowing screens than humans) where Farmiga and Wright monitor the action from what might as well be outer space; and Stevens’ mental projection of his helicopter cockpit which is shot at odd angles and extreme closeups, with handheld camera and short cuts, and the set is doused in blues, altering in shape and props upon each return visit.

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Again, the film plays free agency against corporate repetition. Without Stevens’ knowledge, the doomed train passengers would simply repeat the same lines and actions, dying in exactly the same way; the train is a limbo between existences. But Stevens’ consecutive appearances soon alter the narrative, from helping a woman to avoid spilling her coffee to having an obnoxious comedian entertain a car full of passengers.

It’s reality as video game—Stevens plays out the train bomb scenario nine times, usually losing, but finally “solving” the game in his last go-through. Jones edits each scenario differently, changing dialogue (the only constant is Monaghan’s opening line, “I took your advice”), so that the film essentially repeats nine times, sometimes as black comedy, sometimes as distorted, sped-up fragments, sometimes as a downbeat thriller (see the eighth repetition, in which the villain kills the heroes and gets away with his plans).


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Source Code: blue, blue, electric blue

Source Code did well, making $135 million, and Jones hoped to use it to springboard into more ambitious films. “Until all this is done and I go back to Los Angeles and start taking meetings, I don’t know how seriously I’ll be in a position to get the films made that I’d like to make,” as he told Den of Geek.

He’d envisioned Moon as being one part in a possible trilogy, and he’s long wanted to make a film called Mute (he originally talked to Rockwell about starring in it before Moon even came about). His inspiration for the latter was a SF fan’s: what’s happening elsewhere in the world of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner?

What will Berlin be like in that same future? It got me very excited,” he said. “Berlin’s always a city I’ve found fascinating. I lived there for a little bit when I was a kid, and I went back again more recently, after the reunification of Germany, and it’s a city that’s changing so fast. Just because of the reunification, and the fact that the Soviets no longer exist, as such, so all the old socialist buildings are being repurposed—night clubs, residences, gyms…So, I was thinking, if Berlin has changed that fast in the last fifteen years, what will it be like thirty or forty years from now?

Jones is now a talked-up director, getting on the shortlist for a Superman film and eventually landing Warcraft, adapting the World of Warcraft video game franchise. He’s spent over three years on the project, mostly in post-production. If the film’s a hit (as it likely will be) will this finally give him the pull to make Mute or his other personal projects? Here’s hoping.

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Mute: Berlin street, Jones’ storyboard, ca. 2009

Jones goes a bit against the current grain by not indulging in grimdark SF dystopias. The worlds of Moon and Source Code have positive qualities. The moon colony supplies cheap, clean energy to Earth, letting the human race advance beyond its fossil fuel stage and reduce the pace of climate change. And the use of source code allows someone to prevent terrorist atrocities without resorting to murderous violence or repressive government measures, like a happy dream from the Bush years.

What interests him is what’s sacrificed to make even these compromised utopias: a single human soul, whether the string of short-lived clones in the moon base or the maimed soldier locked in a box in Source Code. Ursula LeGuin’s Omelas lies at the heart of Jones’ work to date—a brighter future built on the enslavement and degradation of a single person, someone who has to be lied to in order to keep working. The company always stays in business.

Of course, this being Bowiesongs, we should close back with the father. Who, after all, was a proud father, and one who’d want to pay homage to the son who had surpassed him, at least in one field.

What’s the very first thing the viewer sees in Moon, after the production tags?

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Moon premiered 23 January 2009 at the Sundance Film Festival and it screened in the UK and US that summer, Europe and Asia that fall. Source Code premiered on 11 March 2011 at the South By Southwest Film Festival. Warcraft is due to be released in June 2016. Let’s hope Mute will follow.

Top: Duncan Jones and his dad, Sundance, January 2009; Jones and Jones and Roeg, 1975; Jones and Jones at press conference, 1974.


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