Miracle Goodnight

October 22, 2012

Miracle Goodnight.
Miracle Goodnight (video).
Miracle Goodnight (2 Chord Philly Mix).
Miracle Goodnight (Make Believe Mix).

A happy contrast to the leaden “Black Tie White Noise,” the follow-up single “Miracle Goodnight” is the cleverest and most moving of Bowie’s wedding songs, a minimalist production on an often dense and cluttered record.

Built on a dual-synthesizer riff (allegedly inspired by a frog chorus Bowie had once heard in Bali) that provides the scaffolding for the verses/choruses and the two spoken asides,1 “Miracle” never extends too far outward in sound, with its accompaniment reduced to the synthesizer hook, a few secondary synthesizer colors (like the long-held notes that sing overhead in the second verse), sets of electronic and live bass/drums and a few low-mixed traces of saxophone. “Miracle” is the closest that Rodgers came on Black Tie White Noise to the stripped-down precision of his Chic masterpieces (including his marvelous guitar solo, see below), while other influences ranged from Prince’s Parade to the synth-hook-strewn McCartney II, with Bowie’s frog chorus riff in line with the relentless earworms of “Coming Up.”

McCartney offers a good perspective to view “Miracle Goodnight.” While Bowie’s song isn’t melodically (a near-conversational, & at times actual conversational, vocal that keeps to a three-note range until the choruses) close to McCartney territory, it shares some thematic parallels with the latter’s work. McCartney was one of the few rockers to celebrate domesticity and monogamy, which earned him his share of critical abuse. “Miracle,” a besotted groom’s ode to his wife, is working in the same line, and at times suggests that Bowie’s channeling a distorted memory of McCartney’s public wife-worship.

But as usual with Bowie, there’s an undercurrent of doubt, building on the fatalism of “The Wedding Song.” The singer is in love, but in the choruses he keeps interrogating his senses to reassure himself that she’s real (or is there actually “nobody dancing”?), while occasional hints of doom crop up in the lyric (“haven’t got a death wish,” “burning up our lives,” “ragged, lame and hungry“). The second spoken break is a blunt compromise: let’s agree that we never talk about who we used to sleep with. Even his images of contentment have double meanings: “Iman” is a “morning star,”2 the planet Venus as well as the angel Lucifer, the once light-bringer (she’s also an “evening flower” standing alone3) while the title line is both a man bidding goodnight to a woman he can’t believe he’s with, and the man fearing that the good times will end (don’t want to say goodnight,” Bowie sings towards the fade).

A harmonically spare song in G major (with a climactic E-flat seventh chord swapped in from the parallel minor), “Miracle” has a lightness of touch throughout, whether in its easy transitions between verses and choruses or its occasional musical joke, like an eight-bar keyboard solo in slight hock to Handel’s “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.”4

And just as the song seems about to close, there’s suddenly a dazzling four-bar guitar solo, a last burst of pure elation. Bowie told Nile Rodgers to play “as though the Fifties had never existed,” Rodgers recalled to Dave Thompson. That is, as if white pop music had never been infused with the sound of black electric blues guitarists. “I don’t want to hear a single blue note,” Bowie told Rodgers. (It’s evidence that Bowie was running variants on Eno’s Oblique Strategies on poor Rodgers throughout these sessions, with Bowie taking the role Eno had played on Lodger). So Rodgers came up with a twangy, spiraling line that suggested early Les Paul (especially in the third bar) and also, defying Bowie’s edict by offering an alternate set of black musical influence, the “dry” guitar style of African highlife and soukous. The solo kicks off with a three-chord phrase that had opened the song (it’s the start of the synth hook), then dances in the air, weightless, as though Rodgers is finally able to indulge a set of roaming thoughts. It’s one of his finest guitar solos on record, and by far his best moment on an album for which he was often a frustrated presence.

Recorded ca. summer-autumn 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station, NYC. Issued in October 1993 as the third UK/European single from BTWN (Arista/BMG 74321 16226 7, c/w “Looking for Lester,” #40 UK). It was given a Matthew Rolston video in which Bowie revived Pierrot, performed aerobics with himself and finally got a chance to play his old influence Buster Keaton (albeit a Keaton who’s apparently wandered into a Calvin Klein “Obsession” ad.) (There’s an alternate video by David Mallett, on the BTWN DVD, with Bowie miming to the song alone on a studio set.) Remixes included the 2 Chord Philly Mix and Maserati Blunted Dub (on the CD single), and the Blunted 2, Make Believe Mix and Dance Dub (on the 12″ single). The Make Believe Mix later appeared on the BTWN 2-CD reissue. There’s a surprisingly decent mashup of Thom Yorke’s “Black Swan” with the Maserati Dub version of “Miracle.”

1: The riff (three dyads, or two-note chords: G-B, A-C, A#-C#; a falling phrase (a B-D chord) answered by a G note; and tight runs of three G notes) is an intricate thing. It’s opened on Rodgers’ guitar, but it’s mainly played by two synthesizers parked in the left and right channels of the mix. They begin each reiteration in sync, but as the left-mixed synth gets an additional repeat of the tail-end hook (three repeats of the three G notes to the other synth’s two), this creates a constant echoing effect. There are also two basses parked on the ends of the spectrum, both of which hit on the downbeat then trail off across each bar. The riff is constant throughout the song except for the two solos.

2: There’s also a little play on words here, with Bowie calling her a “yellow dime,” or a sun that’s a “perfect 10.”

3: This line is followed by what sounds like “puzzling capiche,” which only makes sense if worded “puzzling, capiche?”

4: More in mood than melody, as Bowie’s sets of 16th notes are jumping upward where Handel’s were regally descending. (The patterns reappears in the coda).

Top: “Espino Family,”  “Moscow Subway Music,” August 1992.


Don’t Let Me Down and Down

October 9, 2012

T Beyby (Tahra, 1988).
Don’t Let Me Down and Down (Tahra, 1988).
Don’t Let Me Down and Down (Bowie).
Don’t Let Me Down and Down (Indonesian vocal).

Sometime in 1992, Iman went on a trip to Paris and returned home with a CD made by a friend of hers. She played the album for her new husband and suggested that he cover something from it. Aloft in the giddy state of early marriage, he happily agreed. So the most obscure cover of Bowie’s life began as a wedding gift.

Tahra Mint Hembara, the musician, was born in Néma, in southeast Mauritania, in 1959. Often described in Bowie literature as a “Mauritanian princess,” she was more accurately a hereditary griot, a member of Mauritania’s caste of poets and musicians  (her aunt was a revered griot, Lekhdera Mint Ahmed Zeidane). Tahra, who was also strikingly beautiful, did some modeling in Europe, which is how she met Iman and how, one assumes, she got connected with Pathé Marconi EMI, who gave her a record contract.

Her first, and to my knowledge only, album on a Western label, Yamen Yamen, was produced by Michel Pascal and Martine Valmont. It was an album of, in the words of the Rough Guide to West Africa, “Mooro-Tech”: songs derived from the traditional modal system of Mauritania (a five-mode system in which a musician plays each mode via two different scales, often called “black” and “white”*) but which were interpreted by French musicians in state-of-the-art Parisian studios in 1988.

It wasn’t as odd a fusion as one would imagine, as Mauritanian music had been more receptive to outside influences than other traditional North African musics, reflecting its location (Mauritania is the large vestibule between the Western Saharan nations of Algeria and Morocco and the Western African nations of Senegal and Mali) and its population, a mix of Berbers and Arabs, Wolof and Soninke. At the same time Mauritanian griots kept to strict gender roles: men played the tidinit (a four-stringed lute) while women, including Tahra, played a harp variant called the ardin (you can see Tahra playing it here, in a concert earlier this year at the Institut Français de Mauritanie.)

For her album, Tahra wrote a haunting song called “T Beyby” that was sequenced as the LP closer. Built of sparse materials—Alain Caron’s fretless bass, Olivier Hutman’s keyboards and Christophe Pascal’s drum programming—“Beyby” was a vehicle for Tahra’s unique voice, which was as harsh as it was unearthly, seemingly existing outside of its song, an exile’s voice captured in an exquisite net of sound; her voice was also the sonic equivalent to her ardin, which plays a jabbing two-note ostinato in the track’s closing minute. The refrain, the hypnotic “den eden dani den edani,” seems like an ardin line reincarnated as words.**

Taken by the song and convinced it could be a possible single, Tahra’s producer Martine Valmont wrote an English lyric for “T Beyby,” renaming it “Don’t Let Me Down and Down” (an English syllabic near-equivalent to Tahra’s refrain) and radically altered the song’s mood. “T Beyby” was sung by a man who’s learned that the woman he loves has left her husband. “He rejoices and thanks God for the Arab proverb, ‘all things return to their source.’” Valmont’s translation, allegedly inspired by a friend who’d recently died, introduced obsession and fatalism into the song: a woman, trapped in a cycle of despair, begs her lover not to let her down yet again.

So Bowie had a palette of choices when covering the song. He could return to the original version’s sense of divine liberation or delve further into the obsessional qualities of the translation, and he could build on the Western/Arabic fusion of “The Wedding.” Unfortunately he did nothing of the sort, instead condemning the song to a fate of glossy schlock, the unwelcome return of the sound of Tonight at its immaculate nadir, with overbearing backing singers, a glittering wall of keyboards, tasteful guitar fills and an airless production that seemed intent on smothering any sense of mystery in the song.

Still, Bowie’s “Don’t Let Me Down and Down” would have been comfortably banal but for his vocal. For whatever reason, Bowie decided to sing the first verses in a cod-patois, some baffling attempt at a vague Jamaican or French-inspired accent (“steel I keep my lurve for youuu,” he begins) that hovers between his lower register and a croaking somnolent timbre. As though shamed by Lester Bowie’s fluttering beauty of a trumpet solo, by far the finest thing on the track, Bowie corrected course in the latter half of the song, lunging into his high register, riffing against the ghastly backing singers and impressively flailing away in an attempt to make the song seem like a Young Americans outtake. It was too late: the mix of a crass arrangement and a bewildering, schizophrenic vocal made “Don’t Let Me Down & Down” one of Bowie’s most disappointing covers.

Recorded ca. summer-fall 1992, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Power Station, NYC. Released in April 1993 on Black Tie White Noise. Planned as the third single from the record until the bankruptcy filing of Savage Records in late 1993. Bowie’s Indonesian vocal (which is preferable to the English one) was released on Indonesian pressings of the album and later included on the reissue of Black Tie White Noise.

* The “black” and “white” scales reportedly have no racial connotations; unfortunately I couldn’t find much information as to their differences. (Tahra and/or her producers translated “Don’t Let Me Down” into an A-flat tonality, with the song built of rich augmented chords—the verses and solo sway between an F minor eleventh and an Ab major seventh (vi11-Imaj7) while the chorus moves from dominant (E-flat) through Ab and Fm11 to close on a D-flat major 7th (V-I-vi11-IVmaj7). The presence, if muted, of “black and white” scales fit symbolically with Bowie’s own “Black Tie White Noise.”

** Though presumably Bowie had the lyric sheet, at times he seems to have learned the song phonetically, singing along to Tahra’s oddly-accented English. Hence he sings “you jog-jog in my memory” instead of “judge and jury in my memory,” among a few other clunkers.

Some recent footage of Tahra is on YouTube: an apparent backstage performance of “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” and some fantastic ardin picking here.

Top: Mikael Colville-Anderson, “Kazghar Chicken Express,” Xinxiang Province, China, 1992.


The Wedding, The Wedding Song

October 4, 2012

The Wedding.
The Wedding Song.

Bowie and Iman were united on one point: that Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus” was appalling and wouldn’t be used in their wedding ceremony. Otherwise she was happy to cede all musical responsibilities to her fiancee. So Bowie chose a Bulgarian choir record (“Evening Gathering”) for the bridal entrance, and for the recessional he wrote his own piece, an attempted fusion of Western and Arabic music to symbolize the union of a man from Bromley and a woman from Mogadishu.

Writing what became “The Wedding” (and its subsequent revision as “The Wedding Song”) served as a creative break for Bowie—he later said composing the former renewed him, with most of the self-penned songs for Black Tie White Noise coming soon afterward—and “The Wedding” worked as an album opener, offering an effervescence of spirit, a lightness of touch that seemingly had gone missing somewhere in Bowie’s Eighties.

Wedding songs and pop music are often ill-suited partners. Pop wedding songs tend to be grotesquely comic (“The Big Bopper’s Wedding,” “Dear Doctor”) or bitter and depressing, as someone is often left stranded at the altar in them (“$1,000 Wedding”) or suffers wedding-night blues (“Band of Gold,” “Wedding in Cherokee County”). It’s understandable, as marriage, with its compromises, its implied adulthood, its apparent finality, its sense of an ending, can seem irreconcilable with the ever-unfulfilled promise of pop music. Occasionally you get something as perfect and sweet as “Chapel of Love.” But just as often there’s an ominousness in wedding songs, a sense that the people who are marrying in them are deliberately blinding themselves for a moment, that their bliss will only last as long as the record plays. It’s telling that one of the best wedding songs, Ike and Tina Turner’s “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” happily documents the start of a horrific union.

It’s hard not to compare Bowie’s pair of wedding songs to his “Be My Wife.” The latter has no place in any wedding ceremony, with its abrasive neediness, its irregular rhythms, its empty vocals, although its chorus lyric, excised from its song, could have been written by Dan Fogelberg: stay with me, share my life. “Be My Wife,” written while Bowie was shaking off his addictions and his first marriage, has a cold irony in its depths: it means exactly what it says, that the singer is absolutely desperate for connection, that he wants to escape himself by joining with someone else, but the precise chaos of its arrangement and Bowie’s unreadable blank phrasing denies these attempts. It’s a closed circle.

There’s none of that tension in “The Wedding.” There’s no great depth of spirit, no sense of a settled conflict. It’s meant as a public song, the public face of an (apparently still) happy and successful union, a merger of thriving celebrity ventures, the musical equivalent to the images of the golden, supernatural-looking creatures marrying in the pages of Hello!. Built on a repeating three-chord progression (D-A-Bm-A) in A major, with a brief foray into B-flat major in a eight-bar “bridge” section (starting at 2:33), “The Wedding” is a series of intertwined duets. There are two sets of bells (tubular, played by Michael Reisman) that open the track, the two main keyboard lines, the two-note bassline, jumping between fifth and root notes of the chord (it’s close to a slowed-down version of the hook in Melle Mel’s “White Lines.”)* There’s even a pairing in the chord structure, with a steady A major dancing with a changing set of suitors: D, Bm, Bb.

Most of all, there are Bowie’s twin saxophone lines: an initial “traditional” one, calling back to the days of Davie Jones and the King Bees, with Bowie’s Earl Bostic-inspired playing rich with thick melody (he apparently used the solo lines as the basis for his vocal top melodies) that dances through two choruses, and a second “Arabic” saxophone—Bowie’s tenor sax altered, echoed and distorted, apparently sped-up in places—that’s more discordant and has a more exuberant energy. As Bowie easily could have found an actual Arabic musician to duet with him, his decision to also play the “Eastern” role, for lack of a better word, suggests an attempt to incorporate his wife into himself, reversing the birth of Pallas Athena.

I’m so happy people want to strangle me most of the time.

Bowie on the Arsenio Hall Show, 1993.

At some point in the BTWN sessions, Bowie decided to write a lyric for “The Wedding,” and so following the sequencing of Scary Monsters, he closed the album with a reprise of the opener. He happily admitted that his lyric was just a saccharine ode to his wife, his own extended version of “The Lovely Linda,” though the images he chose again were a reckoning with his musical past. There’s the murmured “I’m gonna be so good/just like a good boy should,” Bowie sinking to a low A on the last three words, which lightens the fatalism of “Beauty and the Beast,” where Bowie had tried to be good but admitted it was a loss. And the central image of Iman as his personal angel revises the indifferent angel of “Look Back in Anger” as a golden spirit.

Returning to how rock wedding songs often have an unresolved conflict in them, that tension is slightly there in Bowie’s “Wedding.” If Iman is his personal angel, she’s also on another plane from him, one which he’s denied entrance to. “She’s not mine forever,” he sings. She’s a temporary embassy from heaven to him, and he won’t be united with her in heaven, because heaven doesn’t exist for him: only the moment, only the wedding. But does it matter? A wedding at its best is a defiance: a public statement that despite age and indifference, despite the ravages of time and chance and illness, two people are taking an impossible stand against their inevitable demise, whether as a couple or as mere humans. “I’ll never fly so high,” Bowie sings, in a gorgeous, slow sweep up a fifth to peak on a long-held E.  But “I’m smiling.”

Recorded ca. summer-fall 1992 at Mountain Studios, Montreux and/or the Power Station, NYC. Released in April 1993 on Black Tie White Noise.

* An appropriately inappropriate reference, given DB’s history. Melle Mel had taken the bassline from Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern.

Top: Brian Aris, photographs from the Bowie-Iman wedding, 6 June 1992, Florence (Brian Eno looks like a caterer caught in the photo by accident). Complete set of Hello shots here.


Abdulmajid

May 4, 2011

Abdulmajid.
Abdulmajid (Philip Glass, “Heroes” Symphony, 1996).

Like “All Saints” and “Some Are,” “Abdulmajid” is allegedly an outtake from the Low“Heroes” sessions, though it was likely tarted up in 1991 before being released (in this case, on the Ryko CD reissue of “Heroes”). As with “All Saints,” which was named after Brian Eno’s ’90s record label, “Abdulmajid” has an anachronistic title, taking its name from Bowie’s second wife, Iman, who he married in 1992.

A rhythm track that’s eventually graced by a three-note melody on synthesizer, “Abdulmajid” calls back to the instrumental miniatures on Eno’s Another Green World. Its overall sound is reminiscent of Can’s early ’70s records, and it also hints at the path Bowie would take with Lodger (if it’s not actually a fragment from the Lodger sessions). It’s fine as B-side material, but if the likes of “Abdulmajid” are considered top outtakes from the Berlin-era sessions, it’s obvious that Bowie, Visconti and Eno used all the best stock in the first go.

Recorded ca. 1977, mixed ca. 1991. Used by Philip Glass as the second movement of his “Heroes” Symphony, composed 1996, recorded 1997.

Top: Iman Mohamed Abdulmajid, as photographed in New York by Francesco Scavullo, ca. May 1977.