Gunman

August 20, 2012

Gunman.

As Adrian Belew had salvaged “Pretty Pink Rose,” Bowie repaid him by writing a lyric and vocal melody for an instrumental track that Belew was ready to abandon. Rehearsing the Sound & Vision tour in New York, Bowie and Belew went to Right Track Recording one night in January 1990 to cut the vocals for “Pink Rose.” The work quickly dispatched, Bowie listened to a few backing tracks Belew was considering for Young Lions but which he said he didn’t know what to do with. One, an uptempo piece with a guitar hook and a driving tom-centered beat, intrigued Bowie, and he asked for it to be replayed a few times. Then Bowie sat down with a beer and a notepad. He wrote a lyric in under a half-hour and, with his typical economy, cut his vocal in a couple of takes.

The backing track, performed entirely by Belew, was built on a drum track with an up-tuned tom, on which Belew played steady eighth notes, and then added delay (at the end of the track, you can hear the delay taper off, Belew said). The bass is the same growling sample that Belew had used on “Pink Rose,” while for his rhythm guitars he used the Roland GR-50, a guitar synthesizer that, in Belew’s words, “had the wonderful capability of playing a different sound on each string. So I added a harmony note to each string but a different note from string to string. In this way I could make up very unusual chords and patterns for the rhythm guitars. For the soloing guitars…who knows?”

Bowie gave the track, “Gunman,” one of his most bizarre recorded vocal performances in over a decade. “I’m not sure what to do,” Bowie said in the booth before cutting his vocal. “If I should be American or English on this.” Belew, in the control room, replied: “I like your English—it’s one of your better speaking voices.” Bowie theatrically moaned “oh Gawd!” and ran through the first verse in an exaggerated RP: “gunman…my sort of stah…we’re bleeding for you.

On the final take, Bowie’s “English” voice doesn’t appear until his last verse: a sing-spoken set of lines that become what sounds like a vicious lampoon of Robert Smith’s singing voice (“your women are DOGS but they’re braver than youuuuu“). Bowie opened the song in a guttural, hoarse voice, sounding deliberately off-key at times, and first sang the title as though being strangled. Taking his vocal hook from Belew’s two-chord guitar phrases (“gun-man”), Bowie generally sang six- or eight-line verses over this hook while singing four-line “refrains” over the contrasting eight-bar sections with arpeggiated guitars. The pattern broke down by the last verse, which bleeds into the “refrain” section.

The lyric, on paper, had the subtlety of Bowie’s thudding protest songs on Tin Machine. But here it worked, Bowie giving his clunky lines piss and blood by the sheer abrasiveness of his performance. His verses are just repeated, stabbing, three-beat, two-note phrases that strain upward at their close. His voice, sounding toxic, builds to a double-tracked shrieked refrain, at first followed by Belew’s solo, then repeated beneath Bowie’s closing, straight-faced ad-libs in his “English speaking voice”: “you’re more solid than a rock…a rock of coh-cayne or crack…Or ayyce..or death…like a rock o’ death! Like a grayve stone!”

A wonderfully odd track that was tucked away as the closer of Belew’s Young Lions, “Gunman” served, in retrospect, to preview Bowie’s crackpot ambitions in the mid-Nineties.

Recorded at Royal Recorders in Lake Geneva, Wis., on 3 November 1989, with Bowie’s vocal cut at Right Track Recording, NYC, on 15 January 1990. Sadly never performed live.

Top: Didier Ruef, “Poland, Silesia, Kameniec,” 1991. “Sanatorium for children aged 7 to 15. A group of girls are inhaling water vapor with eucalyptus oil. Major polluted area due to heavy metals suspended in the air. Kameniec is a small town, distance 35 km from Katowice.”