I Have Not Been to Oxford Town

April 22, 2013

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I Have Not Been to Oxford Town.
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (rehearsal, fragment, 1995).
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (first live performance, 1995).
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (live, 1995).
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (live, 1996).

It began as “Trio,” a rhythm track that Brian Eno, Carlos Alomar and the drummer Joey Baron worked up at the Hit Factory on 17 January 1995, one of the last days of the Outside sessions. Waiting around for Bowie, they knocked a song together to kill time. This was a recurring theme: Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson, waiting for Bowie in Trident Studios during Man Who Sold the World; Alomar, Andy Newmark, Willie Weeks, David Sanborn and Mike Garson waiting in Sigma Sound during Young Americans. It’s likely a tactic, Bowie running his studio sessions like a psychology lab. Delay the appearance of the lead actor, let the supporting players work something out of his absence.

Two days later, Bowie heard “Trio” for the first time. He sat down, started writing, asked for another playback, said he’d need five tracks set aside for his vocals. As Eno wrote in his diary, “then he went into the vocal booth and sang the most obscure thing imaginable—long spaces, little incomplete lines. He unfolded the whole thing in reverse, keeping us in suspense for the main song. Within half an hour he’d substantially finished what may be the most infectious song we’ve ever written together, currently called ‘Toll the Bell.’

There was a simple G major harmonic structure to work with: the verses held on G, with a descending turnaround through F and A minor; the refrain just shifted between G and its IV chord, C major; the bridge finally introduced the dominant (V) chord, a D major. As per Eno’s account, Bowie seems to have sewed together a vocal out of rhythms (one likely starting point was using the F-Am turnaround to underpin the two-note backing vocal melody: “all’s…well“), auditioning meters, playing with vowel alignments and consonance: e.g., my attorney seems sincere, with the little internal rhyme of “ney” and “seem” and the four consecutive “ess” sounds. There’s a severity to his verse phrasings, with their short vowels and Bowie’s curt appraisal of each syllable, letting some pass, haranguing others (Baby Grace is the victimm). And it’s countered by the almost jovial lightness in the chorus, one long dancing line of melody, with its easy phrases and rich rhymes: take “toll the bell,” both a consonant rhyme and onomatopoeiac (& the tolling’s echoed by the “all’s well” hook two bars later).

The fact that Bowie came up with the lyric (and top melody?) in a half-hour is witness to his creative strength at the time. Working at a steady pace since Buddha of Suburbia, gaining the confidence and insight to abandon most of one idea (the Leon suites) in favor of, at the relatively last minute, new, improvised material, it’s as if Bowie had physically willed himself back into an earlier state of creativity. It couldn’t, and it didn’t, last for long. But it produced “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” which is a marvel, the best song Bowie wrote in the Nineties.

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As a rhythm guitarist, I do my stuff knowing a lead guitarist will come in. So I stay away from certain frequencies, concentrate on making a sturdy frame.

Carlos Alomar, 1995.

It’s all just paint, right?

Nile Rodgers, on making recordings.

“Oxford Town” isn’t the end of Carlos Alomar’s work with Bowie: he would play on the subsequent Outside tour and he’ll turn up to take two last bows in the early 2000s. But “Oxford Town” is his finale, his last great accompaniment.

Reeves Gabrels is in the mix as well: he’s likely playing the distorted, seething line, mixed left, that lingers throughout the first verse and chorus like a bad conscience. Alomar’s first unmistakably heard* in the second pre-chorus, playing a little dancing line, mixed center, that jabs against the verse melody, and then, gathering confidence, he starts conniving against the beat in the main chorus. There’s the nervy arpeggios in the bridge and then, when the verse returns, Alomar stays on, riffing, converting Gabrels in the process (or is it another Alomar track? Whoever’s responsible, the distorted guitar stops sulking and begins dancing as well).

And the coda is a last duet, Bowie and arguably his finest collaborator. By the last forty seconds of the track, there are at least three Alomar guitar dubs, talking to each other, making filigrees around the sturdy, constant melody that Bowie sings. Alomar, either on his Parker Fly or, even more fitting, his classic Alembic Maverick, plays bright, hook-filled lines, mainly keeping to the top three strings. The last few seconds of “Oxford Town” are Alomar alone, a sideman having taken the spotlight by force, hooked into a riff that seems like it will never end until it drops dead.

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There’s a ghost in “Oxford Town,” too. Bowie’s vocal echoes someone who he’d never acknowledged before: David Byrne (compare Bowie’s “lord, get me out of here” to Byrne’s phrasing on lines like “wasting precious time” in “Found a Job”).

Bowie and Byrne had kept to separate worlds, with Eno as their only nexus point (edit: “DJ” is allegedly Bowie imitating Byrne, as per a Talking Heads bio—see comments). But as Outside was supposed to be an American album, Leon Blank an alleged American suspect, this gave Bowie a way to use Byrne, particularly his vocal on “Once In a Lifetime,” as a thread in his backdrop. And Bowie and Byrne’s takes on America were fundamentally similar. Byrne was born in Scotland, grew up in Ontario before winding up in Maryland. For him, America would always be a foreign country, especially the vast heartland that he spied from airplanes or bus windows (“I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to,” he’d later sing.) This alienation gave him a way to appreciate “native” American artifacts as works of art: he transcribed game shows and acted them out, and in the late Seventies, he became fascinated by radio broadcasts of evangelical preachers.

Like “Oxford Town,” “Once in a Lifetime” had started as a rhythm track, anchored on Tina Weymouth’s alternating three-note bassline. What Bowie mainly took from “Lifetime” was Byrne’s patter in the verses, a chant-like phrasing Byrne himself had taken from evangelical radio**: You may find yourself! in another part of the world! Hectoring repetition, mainly keeping to one note (“you may find yourself”), balanced with elated, upward-tugging, rhyme-heavy phrases (“behind the wheel of a large automobile!“) You can hear Byrne in Bowie’s last verse, the repetition and rhythmic variations as”Leon” confesses/denies his crimes, sounding as if the words are ripping out of him. If I had not ripped the fabric…if I had not met Ramona…

There’s also a similarity in the two songs’ refrains, which offer a way out from the claustrophobia of their verses. In “Once in a Lifetime,” the exit’s through water: whether metaphor (the aridity of materialist America in the verse met by the communist bounty of water) or religion (Christian baptism, the Islamic ideal of submission to God) or just signalling the freer, more rhythmically dense music (Byrne was referencing Fela Kuti’s “Water Get No Enemy”) that the Heads had started playing.

In “Oxford Town,” the escape is through sound: tolling bells, collective hums, chants (and after all, only sound can escape a prison cell). But who’s in the cell, anyhow? Time for Leon Blank to speak.

six

Manager: I should like to know if anyone has ever heard of a character who gets right out of his part and perorates and speechifies as you do. Have you ever heard of a case? I haven’t.

Father: You have never met such a case, sir, because authors, as a rule, hide the labor of their creations…Imagine such a misfortune as I have described to you: to be born of an author’s fantasy, and be denied life by him; and then answer me if these characters left alive, and yet without life, weren’t right in doing what they did do and are doing now to persuade him to give them their stage life.

Luigi Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author, Act III.

Outside was the first time “in 20 years” (or so he told Billboard) that Bowie had played characters. It was different from Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke, where he’d gone too deep into the characters, tailored their costumes too tightly to his “real” self, he said. On Outside, Bowie would play a more traditional narrator/author role.

But the characters couldn’t even attain the depth of cartoons. Those that had the most signs of life were those that had something akin to Bowie: the alternate-life suburban dreamer in Algeria Touchshriek and the all-conquering artistic ego in Ramona Stone. The nebulous narrator figures, the Artist and Minotaur, were just Bowie “doing the police in different voices.” The rest were press-ganged from movies that Bowie liked: Baby Grace was Bowie imitating David Lynch’s Laura Palmer, while Nathan Adler was a private-eye mingle: Rick Deckard, Philip Marlowe (more Elliott Gould than Bogart), Gary Oldman’s Jack Grimaldi.

This left Leon Blank, accused killer. Leon began as Bowie riffing on Tricky (with a bit of Jean-Michel Basquiat thrown in) but the character was reactive, passive, only seen through the eyes of others. Then Bowie, dashing out the lyric that became “Oxford Town,” finally gave Leon a monologue. The character took on life, began pushing back against its erstwhile creator.

“Oxford Town” is a condemned man’s song, some last words from a jailhouse, which had been a favorite scenario of Bowie’s youth (see “Bars of the County Jail” and “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud”). The first verses find Leon pacing his cell, giving a sketch of his confinement: the food’s foul, the bedsheets are decent, his attorney means well, the priest seems willing to listen. The cold, slightly hectoring tone that Bowie uses makes Leon’s report seem like a man ticking off a list before he goes on a trip.

Then there’s a bridge, and Leon stops reading his lines and starts talking to his author:

This is your shadow on my wall…
This is what I could have been.

I have not been to Oxford Town isn’t just an alibi, it’s a criticism. Bowie failed to give his creations life, stuck them in ridiculous situations, gave them nothing to feed on. Leon kicks against the cheap story that he was folded into: If I had not met Ramona (who was Ramona anyhow?)….If I had not ripped the fabric. “Oxford Town” is a condemned man’s retort: yes, look at the blankets and the priest you gave me—they’re just cheap props. What did you really give me? Nothing. Here, this is what I could have been.

On stage in Paris a year later, Bowie gave one possible ending. Someone threw a white scarf on stage and Bowie, with his old mime’s instincts, played with the scarf, twining it around his neck, making a sling with it for his arm. Then he strung it into a noose, and, while singing the end choruses, aped hanging himself.

lb

[Outside] is only symbolically anguished. I think we are in for a very good time when we get to the next millennium.

Bowie, press conference, 1995.

There would be no sequel albums to Outside, no 2. Inside or 3. Afrikaans or A Night in Oxford Town. No more clues or red herrings or murder revelations or narratives. No grand concert with Eno to mark the millennium in Vienna. No more work (ever?) with Eno. Outside was, arguably, a failure. The album that came out of the implosion of the Leon project was hard to digest: even its die-hard fans may admit it’s overlong and oddly sequenced.

Still, perhaps this unwieldy apparatus, this compilation of role-playing games and Verbasized cut-up lyrics, of computer-generated portraits and vocoded voices, Minotaur paintings and barely-readable “diaries,” was what Bowie needed to finally work on a grand scale again. It’s as if a man who’d once been able to fly now needed some great jerry-rigged dirigible to get him off the ground. But he was still flying. If this was the price paid to get “Oxford Town” and “Hearts Filthy Lesson,“The Motel” and “Thru’ These Architects Eyes” and “Hallo Spaceboy,” well, it wasn’t that dear a price.

In Bowie’s promotional interviews for Outside, he kept saying that his millennial obsessions, the blood and mayhem and piercings and scarifications of the Nineties art world and pop culture, were a purging. We needed to burn the dross and relics of the old century to clear a way for the new one, which would be a calmer time. It didn’t quite turn out that way. The Nineties can now seem like a soap bubble, a playtime in which a world that could have gone anywhere scared itself with trifles and serial killer stories and “art murders.” Despite the murdered girl at the heart of it, Outside generally sounds optimistic, open. It was of its time: the Nineties sometimes felt like they were the gangway to the future we’d imagined, certainly not the future we got.

All’s well. A town crier’s words, after all. Let the old century die, move on. Bowie did: he went on tour to promote Outside, fell in love with his band, made his next record a tribute to them. Pay off Nathan Adler, write him out of the series. Toll the bell, strike the set, say goodbye, baby, and amen.

Recorded 17-20 January (poss. overdubs in February) 1995, Hit Factory, NYC. Covered as “I Have Not Been to Paradise” by Zoe Poledouris on the Starship Troopers soundtrack in 1996.

* I’m thinking that Alomar also plays the sliding hook that begins in the first verse, but it could’ve been Gabrels.

**Byrne was taping broadcasts of these preachers around 1979-1980 for what later became My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

Top: Andreas Freund, “Staten Island Ferry,” 1995; Jean-Baptiste Mondino, back cover of David Byrne, 1994; Ian McKellen, Alison Prior, Margaret Drabble and John Fortune rehearse Six Characters in Search of an Author, ADC Theatre, Cambridge, 1959; “Oxford Town” lyrics (in theory); Bowie/Leon.

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