Wild Is the Wind

December 9, 2010

Wild Is the Wind (Johnny Mathis, 1957).
Wild Is the Wind (Nina Simone, 1964).
Wild Is the Wind (Bowie, 1976).
Wild Is the Wind (Bowie, single video edit, 1981).
Wild Is the Wind (Bowie, live, 1983).
Wild Is the Wind (Bowie and Mike Garson, live, 2000).
Wild Is the Wind (Bowie, broadcast, 2000).
Wild Is the Wind (Bowie, live, 2006).

I used to run into Warren from time to time during the 1970s. Once, at a nightclub called Reno Sweeney, we watched an entertainer named Genevieve White. This was just a few years after the Fillmore East had closed. Maybe Warren and I had thought the Fillmore, and all it represented, was going to be definitive for our generation, and here we were in a nightclub. Genevieve White had just sung a song called “Romance Is On the Rise.”

“Romance is coming back, Warren,” I said.

“You know what’s coming back?” Warren said. “Everything. And then it’s going away for good.”

George W.S. Trow, Within the Context of No Context.

Station to Station is sometimes described as the work of a Howard Hughes-style obsessive, with Bowie locking himself in the studio and, fueled by cocaine, driving his musicians to play for days on end. The stories, some of which are even true, have inspired the album’s reputation of necromancy and manic isolation. Yet Station to Station wasn’t a secret black mass either: it came together fairly quickly (two months of work at most) and often seems to have been a typical Hollywood rock star production, with occasional studio visits by the likes of Ron Wood, Rolling Stone‘s Cameron Crowe, Bobby Womack and Frank Sinatra.

Sinatra, recording at Cherokee Studios in the same period*, came by and heard some Station to Station playbacks, and his reported enthusiasm for Bowie’s version of Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington’s “Wild Is the Wind” likely ensured its inclusion on the album, though Bowie already was justifiably proud of his performance. He’d been wanting to record the song since 1972, he told Crowe at the time. “This has a good European feel,” he said, listening to the finished track. “It feels like a bridge to the future.”

Bowie later called his lead vocal on “Wild Is the Wind” one of his finest vocal performances, and the track does seem like the culmination of Bowie’s decade-long efforts to determine how best to deploy his voice: the reedy, sometimes-Cockney singer of David Bowie seems leagues away from the apocalyptic crooner of “Wild Is the Wind.”

By comparison, the original version of “Wild Is the Wind” by Johnny Mathis, used on the soundtrack of the same-titled 1957 Anthony Quinn Western, is a lark. Barely two minutes long, the Mathis version is working to keep a timetable, with Mathis tumbling through the verses; his vocal, fine but without much nuance, chases the melody and is kept aloft by lush waves of strings.

Bowie saw potential for obsessiveness and grandeur in “Wild Is the Wind”: the essential moodiness of Tiomkin’s music, with its constant shifts from major to minor, and the desperation in its lyric (“with your kiss my life begins”) deserving of an equally extravagant vocal. He found his inspiration in Nina Simone, who had performed “Wild Is the Wind” at Carnegie Hall in March 1964. There Simone (who Bowie had met in Los Angeles during his exile) snakes and burrows through the song over seven minutes—where Mathis had sung “my love is like the wind” as though he was reading a greeting card, Simone intends to embody the element for a time.

Bowie seems determined to outdo Simone’s renovations to the vocal: there’s a three-bar tortuous “you—ooo—oooh—ooh kiss me,” he hollows out vowels and elongates consonants into trills of sound (“willlllllllld is the winnnnnnnnnd”), there’s the dramatic plunge into the depths on another “you kiss me,” and Bowie’s final, increasingly manic, repetitions of the title line, the last ending with a sustained high B eventually subsiding to A. The vocal is on such a grandiose scale that no actual human being seems deserving of its efforts—it’s a monumental performance seemingly intended for a monument itself.

The accompaniment is as restrained as Bowie is over-the-top; it’s centered on multiple-tracked acoustic guitars (reminiscent of “Quicksand”) and features elegant lead work by Earl Slick and fine support by George Murray and Dennis Davis (whose tom fill after Bowie’s a capella “don’t you know you’re life itself?” gives the propulsion to move into the final choruses). Magnificent stuff—the best cover Bowie recorded in his life.

Recorded September-October 1975, and sequenced to end Station to Station. Released as a single in November 1981 (RCA BOW 10, #24 UK) to promote the sorta-hits compilation ChangesTwoBowie. Performed occasionally on the 1983 tour and in 2000, where a performance was taped on 23 June for TFI Friday. A performance from the Black Ball charity show in New York in November 2006 is also Bowie’s last public musical performance to date.

Top: Mary Ellen Mark, “Henry Miller and Twinka, Los Angeles, 1975.”

Echoes of the wind: Cat Power, George Michael, TV On the Radio, Bat for Lashes.

* According to this Sinatra sessionography, it seems most likely that Sinatra’s visit coincided with his 24 October 1975 session, where the Chairman recorded a John Denver Christmas song. Also, according to Marc Spitz’s Bowie, DB sang harmony on a Sinatra track during these sessions, though I’ve seen no other reference to this.

Life On Mars?

March 23, 2010

Life On Mars?
Life On Mars? (live, 1972).
Life On Mars? (rehearsal, 1976).
Life On Mars? (Tonight Show, 1980).
Life On Mars? (live, 1983).
Life On Mars? (broadcast, 1999).
Life On Mars? (Net Aid, 1999).
Life On Mars? (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Life On Mars? (Glastonbury, 2000).
Life On Mars? (Parkinson, 2002).
Life On Mars? (live, 2005).
Life On Mars (The Bad Plus, 2007).
Life on Mars? (Lorde, 2016).

This song was so easy. Being young was easy. A really beautiful day in the park, sitting on the steps of the bandstand. ‘Sailors bap-bap-bap-bap-baaa-bap.’ An anomic (not a ‘gnomic’) heroine. Middle-class ecstasy. I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn’t get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road.

Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise lounge; a bargain-price art nouveau screen (‘William Morris,’ so I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon. Nice.

David Bowie on “Life on Mars,” 2008.

Nice indeed. “Life on Mars?,” as fits its cinematic lyric, has become the Citizen Kane of Bowie songs—the youthful masterpiece, the epic, the best thing he ever did. Popular television shows have been named after it, people have gotten married to it.

It (quite literally) is Bowie’s own version of “My Way”—longtime readers may recall Bowie’s chrisom child “Even a Fool Learns to Love,” his attempt to write English lyrics for Claude François’ “Comme d’Habitude.” Bowie’s translation was trumped by Paul Anka’s, which turned François’ stoic Gallic lyric into a grandiose self-assessment, perfect for Frank Sinatra’s late imperial phase. Bowie was nettled by the snub though, and a few years later he rewrote the song as “Life On Mars?”—brazen enough in his theft that he wrote “Inspired by Frankie” on the LP cover.

An anomic heroine

In Bowie’s lyric, a sullen teenage girl is sent off to the movies by her distracted parents, gets stood up by her friend (maybe her boyfriend) and dejectedly takes her seat in the stalls. It’s one of the few early rock-era songs in which a girl is simply the subject of a song, not an object of beauty or lust or distraction, and Bowie also neatly captures the essence of a teenager’s life: filled with slights and petty injustices, the constant restlessness (take the way nearly each line starts with a new conjunction), the ingrained tedium of your narrow world.

And the song also captures a teenager’s ability to suddenly and completely lose themselves in art, to a degree we can never quite do again. It’s what happens, suddenly, as the girl sits bored in her seat—the movie screen comes alive, showers her with images, flatters her, distracts her, wins her over against her will. It’s what happens in the song as well. Bowie constructs an 8-bar bridge designed to build anticipation in the listener—the strings, the pounding piano, the rising chords in each new bar—and then makes good on his promise: the chorus, starting with Bowie vaulting nearly an octave to a high B-flat and ending with another high Bb, held for a brief eternity, is one of the most gorgeous melodies he ever wrote.

The careful imagery and the intricate design of the first verse—its movie theater setting, its mousy heroine—vanishes in the second, replaced by a string of jokes (“Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow” made Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey crack up in the studio), esoteric references and gibberish (“my mother, my dogs and clowns”). A cynic would argue that Bowie didn’t have a second verse and just free-associated in the studio; a more charitable interpretation is that the second verse is from the point of view of the movie screen itself. Blank and fecund, the screen offers nothing but a string of disconnected, vivid, absurd images: the masses scurrying from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads (from a hip summer holiday destination to an old-fashioned one), Mickey Mouse, “Alley Oop” (from which Bowie stole the “look at those cavemen go” line ), crooked cops and honest robbers.

It could be a curse on modern life, in which a discontented girl is stunned into silence by colors and noise, or it could argue that even the basest pleasures have nobility in them. I’d say “Life on Mars?” turns out to be a love song after all—the girl in the stalls, the screen providing her cheap dreams, and the song that unites them, which in turn becomes the stuff of our own daydreams and idle hopes.

Striking for fame

There is an art to the building up of suspense.

Tom Stoppard, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

“Life on Mars?” is a case in point. The suspense starts in the very first bar, where there’s a single piano note (A), a rest and then two notes that Bowie uses as the first words of his verse (It’s a/godawful small affair”) and every following line has the same two-note intro (“But her/friend is…,” “And her/daddy…,” “And she’s/hooked to the…,” “She could/spit in the eyes…,”). The result is that there’s always a sense of motion, with these “empty” bars suddenly leading to the next line. In the bridge, Bowie drives toward the chorus slowly and relentlessly: there’s the two-note intro again (But the/film is a saddening bore”) and suddenly strings hit on the first beat (on “film”), as does Bolder’s bass, while Rick Wakeman’s piano, which has up until now been offering brief ascending and descending lines of notes, drums out chords.

The chords are stacked upward to the chorus, moving from A flat to an augmented E to G flat to an augmented A, leading to the sudden vault (in Bowie’s vocal) from D to B flat (“fo-cus on/SAIL-ORS“). Even in the chorus Bowie’s not done with the anticipation, as he comes back to the high B-flat again but now briefer (“OH man”), repeats his first leap, now moving from E to B  (“LAW-man”). Finally, at last, comes the release—the three-bars-long B on “MARS!”, a brutal endurance test (Bowie’s voice slightly wavers on the first chorus of the LP cut) that ends the chorus and seems what the whole song has been leading up to.

Ronson’s cascading string arrangement was based in part on the descending bassline that Bolder had worked out in rehearsals, while in turn Woodmansey’s drums respond to the strings—he does some tympani-like fills to match the staccato string bursts, and even ends the track by quoting the tympani of Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra” (a Bowie perennial by this point—similar tributes are in “Width of a Circle” and “The Supermen”). Wakeman, playing the same piano that Paul McCartney used for “Hey Jude,” offers a secondary melody line for much of the verses. Ah, you can spend hours on the details: the lovely wind (or is a synth?) accompaniment in the second verse; or Ronson’s gorgeous,vibrato-filled guitar solo that links the chorus and the verse; or the way Wakeman suddenly drives the rhythm midway through the chorus, pounding eight identical chords over four beats (while the piece oddly moves from F major to F minor).

“Life on Mars?” naturally gets a Hollywood ending: sweeping strings, the 2001 drum fanfare and a fadeout. But we still hear Wakeman’s piano in the distance, playing a bit of his chorus line, until a phone rings, someone mutters and we’re left awake and alone.

Recorded June-July 1971; released as a single by RCA in June 1973 (RCA 2316; it hit #3 in the UK, helped by the Mick Rock promo linked to above). While a huge hit in the UK, it was never that popular in America, oddly enough. Bowie performed it occasionally during the Ziggy tours of ’72-’73 and then retired it until a Tonight Show performance on 5 September 1980 that has, for me, Bowie’s finest vocal for the song. Also revived in 1983, 1990 and some recent tours. It’s also been regularly covered over the years, even by Barbra Streisand. The recent version by The Bad Plus (from Prog) is highly recommended.

Top: The Nottingham Odeon, 1971.