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.”


Planet of Dreams

August 12, 2013

deadman

Planet of Dreams.

The story of David Bowie’s music is that of a boy’s club. There obviously have been women (a great many) in Bowie’s personal life; on stage and in the studio, it’s been a far different matter.

There were muses and fellow performers: Hermione Farthingale, Dana Gillespie, Ava Cherry. His Arts Lab co-founder Mary Finnigan. Fellow composers like Lesley Duncan. Angela Bowie, who in the early Seventies was essentially Bowie’s manager, strategist, minder, roadie and work-engine (for all we know, Iman’s played the same role in the past 20 years). Corrinne Schwab has quietly run his empire since the mid-Seventies. There were choreographers and costumers like Toni Basil and Natasha Korniloff. Backing singers like Emm Gryner, Holly Palmer and Robin Clark. Occasional studio contributors, like the violinist Lisa Germano.

But there’s only been one woman who stands in the “frontline” of Bowie musicians, the only one whose name ranks with the likes of Gabrels or Garson, Alomar or Slick: Ms. Gail Ann Dorsey.

And that said, there’s a sense of missed opportunity with Dorsey and Bowie. While she had a marvelous voice, she rarely sang on Bowie’s albums and, more strikingly, she didn’t play on many of them. We’re about to say goodbye to her for a time, as Mark Plati and Tony Visconti were the only bassists on the stretch of albums between Hours and Reality (as fate would have it, the one album she did play on during this time, Toy, was never issued). Dorsey would remain Bowie’s touring bassist.

Some of her absence was possibly due to timing: she’d been a solo artist since the Eighties and was working on her own material, and she was in demand for other sessions. Some of it was a matter of logistics: e.g., when recording with Visconti, it was simpler to have Visconti play the basslines. But Dorsey seemed to have some regret that she hadn’t been more involved in the records. “It’s hard for me to get a look in with all the great bass players that hang around David. But I enjoy playing with David in any capacity,” she said in a 2003 webchat.*

After the Earthling sessions, Dorsey and Bowie collaborated on “Planet of Dreams,” a track slotted for a 1997 compilation to benefit the Tibet House Trust.** “Planet of Dreams” is little like the rest of Earthling. Recorded mainly with acoustic instruments, its establishing mood is a vague “Eastern” vibe: a glacial sense of grandeur as conveyed by a slow tempo, a wide-panned stereo mix featuring a rotating cast of tastefully deployed sound-colors (among those here are congas, a singing Gabrels guitar line and Garson rumbling on the bass end of his piano); it’s the sort of soundscape favored by late-career Robbie Robertson and Peter Gabriel and seemingly by any post-1990 travel documentary set in the Himalayan region.

Built on a single verse, Bowie singing each phrase to the same rising melody, that ramps up to a ten-times-repeated single-line chorus, “Planet of Dreams” has a sweep and power to it. Its lyric begins with intimations of reincarnation, takes an odd detour through Clark Gable’s eyes and “Eisenhower blam[ing] the poor” and closes with the title phrase, a more cutting idea than the aspirational-sounding “we’re living in planet of dreams” suggests. The line’s more likely Bowie playing on the Mahayana Buddhist concept of māyā, in which we perceive the world as if we’re audience members as a magic show, taking the illusions unfurled on stage as real.

Dorsey’s harmony vocals, coming midway through the verse, strengthen the song as Bowie’s single-tracked verse vocal is flighty and wavering in the first lines. Their harmonies on the chorus, soaring over rolling Zach Alford fills and cymbal crashes and the quiet musings of Dorsey’s own graceful bass, make the title line hypnotic. What saves the track from an icy loftiness is a slight sense of humor: the piano line that winks at George Michael’s “Freedom”: the “Walk on the Wild Side” vocal tag that Dorsey sings.

“Planet of Dreams” could have been the start of a promising partnership on record. Instead, Bowie and Dorsey would remain a stage collaboration only.

Recorded August 1996, Looking Glass Studios, New York [? possibly early 1997? see comments]. Released on 23 June 1997 on Long Live Tibet (EMI 7243 8 33140 2 7).

* A follow-up question was more blunt: Gail were you pissed off Bowie didn’t ask you to play on Heathen [?]
GailAnnDorsey: No. I am always surprised that I am still in the band after all these years. Besides, I always get called in for the hard work.

** The song was credited to Bowie and Dorsey on the CD sleeve. I didn’t find the copyright on BMI’s site (where DB’s songs usually are registered) so I don’t know if Dorsey got songwriting credit (I’m assuming it would be for music).