I Wanna Be Your Dog

April 12, 2012

I Wanna Be Your Dog (Iggy Pop with Bowie, live, 1977).
I Wanna Be Your Dog (Bowie with Charlie Sexton, live, 1987).

I had all these thwarted dreams of what I’d tried to do with rock ‘n roll in the early ’70s, and I was trying to do all that a bit late.

David Bowie, 1991.

Glass Spider was a supernova of a concert which saw the old version of Bowie finally explode under the weight of self-parody, only to shrink to the red dwarf of Tin Machine.

David Buckley.

The Glass Spider tour, 1987: 86 shows, six months, three continents. The spider itself, designed by Mark Ravitz, was 60 feet high and 64 feet wide, spun out of fiberglass and metal, with vacuum tubes for legs. Bowie began each concert by descending in a chair from its maw, while on the encore (“Time”) he sang from atop the structure’s head, precariously standing on a three-foot-square steel plate. When the winds were up, it was too dangerous for him to be there; after a while, Bowie began hoping each night that the winds would be up.

The summer of 1987, in Europe and the UK, was soured by winds and rain, and as it generally stayed light until 10 PM, it meant that the Spider often wouldn’t be fully lit until the concert was nearly over, while the video-projected backdrops were often hard to see (worse, many of the open-air arenas that Bowie played in Britain had strict 10:30 PM or 11 PM curfews, causing Bowie to sprint through his encores). Most concertgoers just saw an enormous, immobile, occasionally-glowing spider and, beneath it, some dozen performers running around in circles. Bowie wore bright red and gold suits in part so that those in the nosebleed seats could at least determine which speck he was. (See below, a photograph from a Manchester show in July 1987.)

The tour was plagued by technical foul-ups. The limitations of the sound system and of the headsets that Bowie and his dancers wore meant that their spoken “dialogue” often sounded like babble punctuated by the occasional burst of feedback. Bowie took to miming a pre-recorded vocal track on his opening “Glass Spider” as he was generally inaudible singing into his headset mike while in his chair. Carlos Alomar and Peter Frampton groused that the dancers kept pushing them up-stage and sometimes stepped on their effects pedals—once, during a quiet song, a dancer turned on Frampton’s fuzzbox by accident. There were also a string of greater disasters—a lighting engineer fell to his death in Florence, there was a riot in Milan, Bowie was sued for sexual assault in America (a grand jury later cleared him of all charges).

And the mood backstage was raw at times. Carlos Alomar, at last fed up with being the eternally-agreeable sidekick, gave a few truculent interviews in which he emphasized his importance to Bowie’s records (undeniable, but this was never a good thing for your long-term health in Bowie’s organization), and he asked to start off the concert with an extended squalling guitar solo to show that he was Frampton’s equal: “On that tour I was tired of being the sideman. I wanted my place. Give me a bone, Jesus!” he told David Buckley years later. Alomar and the bassist Carmine Rojas formed a hard-partying, irreverent faction (much to the alleged ire of Coco Schwab), while Frampton and Erdal Kizilcay, by contrast, were reserved and often worn out, and even thought about bailing once the tour had reached America.

And Bowie? He was both tour manager and ringmaster, dancer as well as director: painstakingly mapping out choreographed dance and lighting sequences during soundchecks. He had to sing while performing like a triathlete (climbing up to a catwalk on “Scary Monsters,” being thrown around like a sack of grain by his dancers on “Fashion”). To no surprise, Bowie grew exhausted and irritable, especially once the bad reviews poured in (the NME: “unmemorable tedium,” Melody Maker: “the paucity of ideas is quite incredible,” Sounds: “frenzied schlock”), and his voice occasionally gave out as the months wore on. A member of Big Country, one of Bowie’s opening acts, recalled to Marc Spitz a time when Bowie had a “volcanic” meltdown because the hair stylist had used the wrong lacquer on his mullet. Bowie publicly dressed down Alomar, even once the genial Kizilcay.

Bowie had never put on a show on the level of “Glass Spider” and he soon came to feel trapped within it. In 1974, he had ditched the Diamond Dogs concept three months into the tour, scrapping the Hunger City sets in favor of soul-inspired group performances. But now Pepsi was footing much of the bill, and everyone expected the spectacle: the giant spider, the routine where Bowie pulled his girlfriend out of the crowd on “Bang Bang,” the abseiling and kickboxing dancers.

So the “Glass Spider” tour became an extended acting-out of the conflicting impulses that had bedeviled Never Let Me Down. On one hand, the tour was meant to be an arena-based summer hot-ticket event (and the shows generally sold out—Bowie didn’t lose money on it, by any means), but Bowie also intended it to be a traveling performance-art show, an avant-garde rock and roll circus, featuring modern dances inspired by Pina Bausch: he originally wanted the Canadian troupe La La La Human Steps to be his dancers, but they were unavailable (he would work with them in 1988).

The band generally turned in solid, even inspired performances (“Heroes” in the Berlin concert in June 1987 remains one of Bowie’s most resonant moments), while the set list was fresh, with few nostalgic favorites or greatest hits on the bill. In the “Serious Moonlight” tour, Bowie had performed only the hits off of Let’s Dance and had filled the rest of his set with classics. Even in 1978, he had leavened the Low/”Heroes” material with Ziggy Stardust songs. But “Glass Spider” featured almost all of Never Let Me Down (except, wisely, “Shining Star” and “Too Dizzy”), while its older songs were as much obscurities (“Sons of the Silent Age,” “All the Madmen,” “Big Brother”) as they were hits (“Let’s Dance,” “China Girl,” “Fame”).*

As the tour wound down in Europe, Bowie began swapping out some of his new material for storied rockers (“Jean Genie,” “White Light/White Heat”), in part because he didn’t have to dance during the new numbers: he could just stay in one place on stage and even strap on a guitar. And soon into the American leg of the tour, he began playing the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” in encores (the first set list that I found with it is, appropriately, Iggy Pop’s backyard: Pontiac, Michigan, on 12 September 1987).

It’s not that Bowie’s performances of “Wanna Be Your Dog” were revelatory—in fact, they were often dull, especially compared to the caustic performances that he and Pop had unleashed a decade before. The all-star celebrity revue performance with Charlie Sexton (filmed in Sydney for the Glass Spider video), with its almost cheery uptempo rhythms, and with Sexton and Frampton vying to out-cliche each other, is particularly grating. But reviving “White Light” and “Wanna Be Your Dog” served a purpose for Bowie: it let him revel in a fantasy that, for a moment, he was happily reduced to being in a rock band again, that the only spectacle he had to pull off was the song itself.

The tour ended in Auckland on 28 November 1987. Bowie would never attempt anything of its like again (though “Glass Spider” would be the template for a host of succeeding tours, from Paula Abdul‘s abseiling dancers to U2’s PopMart and 360 tours). It had been a long, hard purging of illusions. Bowie would never again attempt to so fully reconcile his avant-garde theatrical side with the hard business of filling arenas. He had been ridiculed for it, the process had nearly broken him, and now he was done. Bowie the global pop icon died on the same night that he torched the spider in a New Zealand field.

Still, there were a few moments during 1987 when Bowie stumbled upon his future. At a party to celebrate the end of the tour, a depressed-looking Bowie saw Hunt Sales across the room and embraced him like a lost brother. And before he left for the last leg in Australia, his publicist Sara handed him a cassette. It was a few demos by her husband, who Bowie had befriended during the tour. Bowie was bemused: he had thought that Reeves Gabrels was a painter. He put the tape in his coat pocket and soon forgot about it. Six months later, back home in Switzerland, Bowie came across the tape and figured it was worth a listen…

*In rehearsals, Bowie tried out “Scream Like a Baby” (Frampton again taking part of the vocals), “Because You’re Young,” and “Joe the Lion.”

The version of “I Wanna Be Your Dog” linked above was filmed by David Mallet in Sydney on 6 November 1987, and released as part of the Glass Spider concert video.

Photos (top to bottom): unknown show/photog. (let me know);  pommieken (Manchester,UK, 14 or 15 July 1987); Wikipedia (Nürburgring, Germany, 7 June 1987);  Turistadeguerra (Madison Square Garden, NYC, 1 or 2 September 1987).

Glass Spider

March 30, 2012

Glass Spider.
Glass Spider (live, 1987).

It’s an all-time low: a spoken/sung SF-themed track with “spooky” music and which has some of the silliest lines that Bowie ever wrote. I’m talking about “Future Legend,” of course.

“Glass Spider” is not the singular high embarrassment of the Bowie canon, as some have claimed. Along with Labyrinth, it’s the return of a part of Bowie that he had kept in a box for over a decade: the Bowie of “Laughing Gnome,” “The Supermen” and Diamond Dogs, the weird, whimsical, dorky, gloriously juvenile Bowie. The embarrassing Bowie. The Bowie who Lester Bangs once called “that chickenhearted straw man of suck rock you love to hate so much.”

By the Eighties, Bowie had reinvented himself as an aspirational figure, unknowable and cool, existing in a state of otherworldly fame. Then in “Glass Spider,” he suddenly became a clown again, and he got jeered for it. As Steve Pond of Rolling Stone wrote in his Never Let Me Down review, “Glass Spider” [is] Bowie’s most embarrassing moment in years…it’s probably not any dumber than the 1984-inspired excesses of Diamond Dogs, but coming thirteen years later from an artist who’s supposed to be sophisticated and intelligent, it sounds a hell of a lot dumber.”

Elvis Costello once said that his record company (and some of his fans) had hounded him for years to make another This Year’s Model,  but when he finally gave it to them in ’86—the bile and wordplay-soaked Blood and Chocolate—they didn’t know what to do with it. There’s something of the same in the general reaction to “Glass Spider.” Isn’t this what everyone wanted? Back to space-age fables and apocalypse? Back to costumes and dark theater? Back to scary monsters? Why was it all so embarrassing now? Why could Bowie dress up like a space pirate in 1974 and be the height of cool, but when he gloomily intoned his parable about spiders in 1987, it was a laughable, pathetic indulgence?

Maybe because Bowie was forty years old in 1987, and this monster-movie doom mongering now seemed beneath him. Bowie, as he aged, was apparently meant to drift into pseudo-Continental adult sophistication, à la Bryan Ferry (who had always done it better than him), not to revive his old pantomime shenanigans. Bowie was making his audience regret their tastes. There was an article I read some time ago in which a woman was driving with her teenage daughter and “Space Oddity” came on the radio. It once had been her favorite song. But as she watched her daughter listen and roll her eyes, the woman realized “what a dumb song it was.” And it is: “Space Oddity” is hokey bubblegum folk-pop. But it’s sublime hokey bubblegum folk-pop, with a world inside it. It didn’t matter: all at once, the woman had grown up and out of it.

There’s a Smiths B-side, “Rubber Ring,” that gets to the heart of this. Morrissey breaks the fourth wall throughout the song, with the record giving a long harangue to its teenage listeners, telling them of their upcoming betrayal. “The most impassioned song to a lonely soul/is so easily outgrown.” These songs mean everything to you now, but soon you’ll grow up and leave them behind, and crack jokes about your mopey Smiths-listening phase. All Moz asks is that from time to time, “when you’re dancing and laughing, and finally living/hear my voice in your head and think of me kindly.” Because you get to move on, you get to grow up to be a clever swine. But I’m staying here at the barricades.

“Glass Spider,” while in no way as self-conscious (or as good) a song, comes from the same position, an artist saying: this is what I do, this is what I’ve always done, ridiculous as it may seem to you now. So it’s fitting that “Spider” is in part a (tortured) metaphor about growing up, of being abandoned by your parents and learning to live on your own. “You always think your mother’s there, but of course she never really is,” Bowie said in ’87.

Bowie’s inspiration was a TV documentary he saw about black widow spiders. He was especially taken by the image of their webs festooned with remnants of their prey, and he played with the idea of an enormous, multi-tiered, corpse-strewn spider web as a housing project (yet another link back to Diamond Dogs) as well as a mythic castle “with a kind of altar at the top.” And like his inspirational black widows, he kept piling things on—the spider became a universal mother figure, one who abandons her children to the cold world, where they have to fend for themselves. The third verse, with the spiders keeping to ground, looking for shelter, fearing nature, is Bowie’s Fall of Man (in a horror comic).

At the same time, Bowie had more practical needs for the song. He wanted it to be the big opening number for his tour (so the spoken prologue was designed in part as mood-setting and to give the band time to get out on stage) and to have a striking image he could build the stage set around. And of course he was playing with his past, too, obviously referencing the Spiders from Mars.*

So “Glass Spider” was a garish, muddled mix of influences and intentions. It begins as a spoken-word parable (56 bars, the first 1:40 of the song) in which Bowie’s echoed voice is set against washes of Mellotron and Moog, with Crusher Bennett’s stick percussion giving occasional punctuation. The spoken section is ridiculous (Bowie’s narrative soon loses its authority because he’s constantly equivocating, as if he can’t be bothered to remember the details: “with almost apparent care,” “one could almost call it an altar,” “its blue eyes [were] almost like a human’s!“) but also has a real creepiness with its wailing synthesizers, some of which call back to “Heroes.”

The latter half of the song, announced by a synth bassline that foreshadows the refrain, works well enough as a horror-movie soundtrack theme, with some of Bowie’s eeriest lines on the album (“life is over you,” “come along before the animals awake“) and there’s a sense of menace in its building momentum, with the “Mummy come back” refrain repeatedly knifing its way into the verses. “Spider” also uses some of Bowie’s favorite compositional tricks, such as backing his way into establishing the key: while the spoken section seems to be in E minor, when the song proper begins, it quickly hammers down into A minor, its verses a I-VI-VII progression similar to “Time Will Crawl” (Am-F-G, with the latter chords keeping A as the root note). There’s also a chromatically descending bassline (used in “Life on Mars?” among a host of other songs) that anchors the climactic “mummy come back” chorus, which climaxes in an a capella bar.

And just as much of it’s a mess, from Bowie’s quasi-operatic bursts in the first verse (“can you HEAAR this wasted CRYYYY”) to the whinnying Frampton guitar solos to Bowie’s irritating tone in the “jah jah jah” refrains. Still, “Glass Spider” alone makes the case for Never Let Me Down—with its air of frenzied desperation, its sense of Bowie being willing to try anything, even if it made him look like an ass—being superior to the pure product Tonight and, arguably, some of his later albums. “Glass Spider,” a bewildering, appalling lapse of taste, is the sound of a man reclaiming himself.

Recorded ca. September-November 1986, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station, NYC. On Never Let Me Down and, of course, it was performed in the tour that it named.

Jake Brown’s fine article on“Rubber Ring” from 2003 sums up well the song’s many qualities.

* Referencing the Spiders was a canny move, as the mid-Eighties were the height of Ziggy Stardust‘s reign as critical consensus pick for Best Bowie Album (Rolling Stone‘s Top 100 albums list in 1987 had Ziggy in its top 10, with no other Bowie records making the cut except for ChangesOneBowie at the tail end). Low and Station to Station have since usurped it (similar to how Revolver has knocked off Sgt. Pepper.)

Top: Gerhard Richter, Gudrun, 1987.