O Superman

September 12, 2013

97telemarketr

O Superman (Laurie Anderson, 1981).
O Superman (Anderson, live, 1983).
O Superman (Bowie and Gail Ann Dorsey, 1997).
O Superman (Bowie and Dorsey, live, 1997).
O Superman (Bowie and Dorsey, live, 1997).
O Superman (Anderson, live, NYC, 19 September 2001).

Bowie chose Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman (For Massenet)” as the token cover song for the Earthling tour: it was in the set of the first preview gig in Dublin and it would stay there until the tour’s penultimate show in Santiago. He intended it as Gail Ann Dorsey’s solo moment, often sequencing the song late in sets as a climactic piece.

Dorsey sang it as if she’d summoned it (even if at times she’d have trouble precisely hitting Anderson’s first “O JUUUUdge”–she could be a bit sharp)*, and when Bowie joined her, providing a lower harmony for the voices of the mothers and the mad on Anderson’s answering machine, the effect could be stunning. Supplanting Anderson’s rhythmic pulse—her voice looped on an Eventide sampler (Isaac Butler: “a pulmonic egressive ha repeats, calling out from 1981, exhaling middle C”)—with first a thudding kick drum and then some jittery drum ‘n’ bass loops, Bowie also introduced a few new secondary players: Reeves Gabrels’ guitar, the wailing of his own baritone saxophone.

Anderson’s “O Superman” was nearly a #1 single in Britain in 1981; it hit the Top 10 in Holland and the Top 20 in Ireland (if MTV had had more of a foothold in the US then, “Superman” could’ve even charted in America). It was downtown boho synth-pop, a span between “high” culture (Philip Glass, from whose Einstein at the Beach Anderson derived her “ha ha has” and the track’s organ tone and Jules Massenet, whose Le Cid she directly references in her lyric—“O superman, O judge, O mom and dad” plays off Massenet’s aria “Ô Souverain, ô juge, ô père“) and “low” culture (answering machines, Top of the Pops performances, vocoders).

I can say little more about the song than Butler did in his piece “Here Come the Planes,” which I recommend reading. As Butler wrote, “O Superman” is, for all its sublime weirdness, a straight narrative. A woman sits at home, the phone rings, she lets her machine get it. The first call is from her worried mother; the second is from a mysterious voice that mutters prophecies and warnings. These unnerve her so much that she finally picks up the phone: Who is this really? The voice says: This is the hand. The hand that takes. The rest of the song is a lullaby, the woman falling under the spell of the voice, falling in love with a pure, abstracted power, a power that’s like a refined religion. Anderson even corrupts the language of the Tao te Ching: when justice is gone, there’s always force.

“O Superman” was “a dream about imperialism—about a supernation that has done with the rest of the world and has turned back to colonize itself,” Greil Marcus wrote in 1987. “Beginning, as dreams do, in triviality, the song becomes a totality: an impenetrable whole,” he wrote, a whole made of natural life (the sounds of birds and cats, hunted and hunters), private life (Hi mom!) and public life (Anderson recites the unofficial creed of the US Mail, carved onto the James Farley Post Office in NYC, and which equally could be the creed of the drone planes that the US hunts with today).

“O Superman” is also a horror movie, domestic technology fallen into darkness. First there’s the answering machine, which, while it turned out to be merely a transitional technology, inspired some crack songs in its time: see the Replacements‘ and Green Velvet‘s respective “Answering Machines.” There are no comparable songs about texting or email (yet): perhaps the aesthetic of the answering machine (broken, distorted communication) was more compelling than that of smart phones (constant, trivial communication). The allure of the answering machine was control and removal: you could put up a screen against the outside world, you didn’t have to be a slave to the ringing phone anymore. You set the terms. But the machine also recorded: a stray call by a crank may have gone unheard in the past; a threat could only be heard once. Now the voices were permanent, if you wanted them to be; you could preserve the intrusions of the world so that they could have greater purchase in you.

Then there are the planes. (American planes, made in America!) Death, fear and airplanes have been intertwined since the Wright Brothers; as Orson Welles once said, there are only two emotions in a plane, boredom and terror. And when heard in the context of Anderson’s “United States Live” show, “O Superman” was another variation on the JG Ballardian plane crashes that Anderson used as motifs throughout: using her vocoder to impersonate the voice of a pilot calmly telling his passengers they’re about to crash, for instance. The airplane had always been an aesthetic as much as it was a simple means of transport; Anderson’s use of them was part of a century-long tradition.

And then, despite its creator’s influences and intentions (Anderson had written the song in part about Operation Eagle Claw, the failed rescue mission from the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980), the song became horrifically prophetic after 9/11. The line Here come the planes. They’re American planes. Made in America. Smoking…or non-smoking? was now tainted. There was no going back to whatever images the words had conveyed before that morning. History had brutally colonized them; the hand that takes had taken them. You can hear Anderson, performing “O Superman” a week after the attacks, singing the lines with reserve, with a palpable sadness; the song’s not hers anymore, and she knows it: she sings it and lets it go.

Where does Bowie and Dorsey’s “O Superman” fit into the picture? An alternate reading, a more humane revision, the hand in a glove? Dorsey lacked Anderson’s precise alienation: her voice of Mom was warm and funny. The deepness and richness of her voice made “the hand that takes” seem even more alluring than Anderson had; she gave it a gorgeous power. The song builds and builds. So hold me now…in your long arms, she sings, as Anderson did: as a broken surrender, a woman being assaulted, a submission to power. The 21st Century was being summoned again, building on Anderson’s first incantation. Almost every night during the 1997 tour, Bowie and Dorsey stood on stage and hurled the prophecy to their audiences. All of this is coming, and there’s nothing you can do about it. So dance: later on, we might play “Heroes.”

* Acc. to the sheet music it’s a high G, but Anderson’s vocoder makes it more slippery. Other alterations included a shift of Anderson’s 2/4 to (mainly) 4/4, and to play the “ha ha ha” bass pedal as a waltzing figure.

First performed at the Factory, Dublin, 17 May 1997.

Top: Karen Kasmauski, “Teenage Telemarketer, Lincoln, Nebraska, 1997.”


Is It Any Wonder/ Fun/Funhouse

September 10, 2013

97crossingted

Is It Any Wonder (live, 1997).
Is It Any Wonder (studio?, 1997).
Fun (Dillinja Mix).
Funhouse.

In the 17 years between Lodger and Outside, Bowie treated touring as a politician would re-election campaigns. He had three grand efforts (Serious Moonlight, Glass Spider, Sound + Vision) and two small-scale ones (Tin Machine), and he’d mounted the larger productions as global carnivals, with exhausting rounds of publicity to make the shows “events.” At the close of each, he’d been spent: it would take him years to play live again.

Then in the mid-Nineties he became a road dog, following up his lengthy Outside tour with a round of summer festival gigs in 1996, then spending another five months touring from Germany to Argentina in 1997. It was his most sustained period of live performance since the Ziggy Stardust days.

So by the Earthling tour, the novelty of a “revived” Bowie playing live had waned a bit. With essentially the same band that he’d had since 1995, he used some of the same stage props, and his set lists, despite the new Earthling material and a few revived pieces, weren’t radically different from those of the Outside tour. So the 1997 tour tends to be forgotten, or folded into the overall “Outside” period; none of the Bowie bios devote more than a couple of paragraphs to it.

What the tour was, however, was a chance for fans to see Bowie with essentially nothing left to prove, on a more intimate scale and with a lower price-tag (this time round, he mainly played mid-size ballrooms and clubs rather than try to fill arenas). The shows were more casual in feel and wider in scope than the Outside gigs. There was more overt use of DATs for supplemental beats, vocal choruses and synthesizer lines, which freed up the players: Gail Ann Dorsey shifted to keyboard at times, and she had two vocal spotlights (“Under Pressure” and the next entry). The tour wound up as the blueprint for most of his subsequent shows: a set list ranging across the catalog, performed by a tight, crack band with little choreography and no more “concepts.”

thethinker

The Earthling tour was a compromise. In his “dress rehearsal” concerts (four gigs in Dublin and London), Bowie unveiled his original template for the tour. There were would be two sets, a traditional “rock” set and a “drum ‘n’ bass” dance set. So for instance, at the Hanover in London (2 June), the drum ‘n’ bass set began with “I’m Deranged,” moved through “Pallas Athena” and a revived “V-2 Schneider” and closed with “The Last Thing You Should Do” and “Telling Lies.”

The split sets got a mixed response. Reportedly, much of the audience at the first Hanover gig left after the “rock” set was over, prompting Bowie to open with the dance set the following night. Some journalists attending the shows wrote up the drum ‘n’ bass sets as if Bowie had been igniting farts on stage. (The Observer‘s Barbara Ellen: “we all have to stand around for an aeon to what sounds like the cast of Star Wars falling down a fire escape…for God’s sake man, you’re a living legend. In future, play the old stuff and stop trying so hard.”)

After a few German dates, Bowie scrapped the split-set plan,* with the drum ‘n’ bass pieces now interwoven with the rock songs. This arguably improved the shows, as Bowie could create an arc—starting shows playing “Quicksand” alone on acoustic guitar and building to the dance songs midway through, so that a “Last Thing You Should Do” would be chased by “Under Pressure.” This made the newer pieces seem less like alien artifacts and more elaborations on his earlier work.

During the drum ‘n’ bass sets, the band had played an instrumental jam which apparently had come out of rehearsals of “Fame.” It opened with a DAT-generated beat that Zach Alford supplemented on drums, and had occasional vocal hooks (included what sounded like a vocoded Dorsey singing “is it any wonder?”); Bowie played tenor saxophone, then switched to baritone. As the first link above shows, he was often barely audible over the barrage, though he managed to make the bari sax groan like a trumpeting elephant.

This piece’s subsequent life is one of the more confounding in the Bowie catalog. As he’d intended to release a live album from the Earthling tour, “Is It Any Wonder” seemed a likely candidate for inclusion, either as a live take or a studio remake (or both: take the alleged “live” version taped at the Paradiso in Amsterdam on 10 June 1997. I agree with the Illustrated DB site that this recording seems like a studio take with canned applause mixed in).

Then in 1998 a 3:31 studio take of “Is It Any Wonder,” now retitled “Fun” (or “Funhouse,” as Gabrels once called it) was issued to BowieNet subscribers on a CD-ROM (you had to log onto the site first before you could play the track—in the days of dial-up Internet, this may have consumed an entire evening). By now, Bowie had come up with a few random lyrics for the track, referencing his old work with Iggy Pop (“Funtime”) and throwing in a pinch of world weariness (“my summer turns to fall…and I’ll miss you”).

A remix of the track by Dillinja, presumably from the same era, was included on the 2000 liveandwell.com CD. (Five other “Clownboy” mixes of “Fun” were made, though none were officially released). In all of its incarnations, the track never escaped being an enjoyable live filler promoted to being a fairly dull record.

First performed (“Is It Any Wonder”) at the Hanover, London, on 2 June 1997. “Fun” was likely recorded/mixed ca. January 1998 during the “Earthling Live” mixing sessions.

* The last show to use the template was apparently the Utrecht gig on 11 June. The following show, in Dortmund on 13 June, had an incorporated set and the French concerts (14-19 June) solidified what would be the main set of the European leg of the tour, with “Is It Any Wonder” often slated midway through.

Top: Ted Barron, “Crossing, Brooklyn, NY” 1997; Bowie does his best Rodin at the Q Club, Birmingham, UK, 1 August 1997 (via “bowieinleith”).