Alabama Song

June 6, 2011

Alabama Song (Lotte Lenya, 1962).
Alabama Song (The Doors, 1967).
Alabama Song (Bowie, live, 1978).
Alabama Song (soundcheck, 1978).
Alabama Song (broadcast, 1978).
Alabama Song (single, 1980).
Alabama Song (live, 1990).
Alabama Song (live, 2002).

Here in Mahagonny, life is lovely.

Scene title in Mahagonny-Songspiel, 1927.

Bertolt Brecht wrote “Alabama Song” around 1925. With its stilted English lyric (likely by his regular collaborator, Elisabeth Hauptmann, as Brecht’s English was never good) and a crabbed melody meant for Brecht’s flint box of a voice, it was more a poem than it was a future standard. Kurt Weill, upon reading the original score, said “Alabama” was “nothing more than a notation of [Brecht’s] speech-rhythm and completely useless as music.” So Weill, once he began working with Brecht, set about turning “Alabama Song” into music. For instance, Brecht originally had compressed the start of the refrain, “O moon of Alabama,” into 1 1/2 bars—Weill extended the line over five bars, making “O” a whole note, having “Alabama” descend an octave. One of their first collaborations, the revised “Alabama Song” embodied the Brecht/Weill partnership, with Brecht’s depiction of man as a scavenging animal undermining, and being exalted by, Weill’s beauties.

“Alabama Song” first appeared in Brecht/Weill’s Mahoganny Songspiel (1927) and its operatic reworking three years later, The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahoganny. It was sung by a prostitute and her gang, leaving one town, heading for the fabled city of Mahoganny (essentially the ur-Las Vegas). “Alabama Song” was an anthem of the dissolute, a cry for base pleasures “performed by a priestess in the cult of money” (Daniel Albright). Lotte Lenya immortalized it, as she would other Brecht/Weill songs (a version here from 1962). When Lenya first sang “Alabama Song” for Brecht, he “listened with that deep courtesy and patience that I was to learn never failed him with women and actors,” Lenya recalled. “‘Not so Egyptian,’ he said, turning my palms upward, extending my arms…

Once the Nazis took power, Mahoganny and all other Brecht/Weill productions were banned from performance; by the early 1940s, Brecht, Weill and Lenya were all exiled in America. In the postwar years, Mahoganny was admired more than it was performed, never achieving the renown of Threepenny Opera, which had a major Broadway revival in the ’50s.

In 1965 Ray Manzarek played a cast recording of Mahoganny for his new band, the Doors. They adapted “Alabama Song,” as its calls for whiskey and (gender-altered by Jim Morrison) girls worked with the songs the Doors were writing at the time (here are versions by leather Morrison or bearded Morrison); the Doors played it in their sets at the Whiskey A Go-Go, where it became a standout, with most of the audience assuming it was an original. The band put “Alabama Song” on their first album; it was a remnant from a long-expired decadent era included in a bid to herald a new one.

A decade later, Bowie, planning a world tour in 1978, decided to play “Alabama Song” live; the idea may have been sparked by Bowie’s negotiations to star in a Threepenny Opera revival. It was an inspired choice, as “Alabama Song” both referenced (and slightly mocked) Bowie’s recent Berlin leanings and showed the ancestry of some of his recent songs—compare the irregular, even chaotic stressing of beats in the vocal (take “FOR–IF–we-don’t-FIND—the-next WHISKEY bar”) to Bowie’s vocals on songs like “What in the World” or “Breaking Glass.” In the Doors’ cover, Morrison had put a soulful rasp into the verses, making them flow better into the choruses. Bowie went back to Weimar, instead singing the verses with a blank expression, sometimes smoking a cigarette, flattening and deadening his tone. Then, suddenly, he would fall into the chorus, swooning and closing his eyes, with his band chanting behind him.

Pleased with how “Alabama Song” was working in his live sets, Bowie brought his touring band into Tony Visconti’s Good Earth studio in London, the day after the final Earl’s Court show, to cut a version of “Alabama Song” as a prospective single. Bowie wanted Dennis Davis to play a wild track-length drum solo, but attempting to do that live in the studio caused Davis to keep throwing off the band. The compromise was, breaking with standard recording practices, to tape the drums last, with the rhythm mainly kept by Sean Mayes’ keyboards and George Murray’s bass. Davis opens with a rumbling run on toms and cymbals, offers a stammering off-beat commentary on the choruses.

Bowie shelved “Alabama Song” until early 1980, when he finally issued it as a single. The timing was right at last: “Alabama Song” would mark his goodbye to the Seventies with a curse and smile, and, as it was an ode to sex and dollars, it would neatly welcome the Eighties.

A brief word on Stage, as this is the place for it. A live record of Philadelphia, Boston and Providence shows taped in early May 1978, it has strong versions of “Warszawa” (and all the Berlin instrumentals), “Stay” and arguably has the definitive “Station to Station.” It’s a document of transit: Bowie’s band learning how to adapt the Low/”Heroes” songs live and creating the sound of Lodger in the process, with keyboard work divided between Roger Powell (avant) and Sean Mayes (garde). Adrian Belew, having to not only cover Robert Fripp’s guitar work but Mick Ronson’s too, acquits himself well; Simon House’s violin adds an electric gypsy sound to the proceedings.

That said, as with most live records, Stage is a case of souvenirs from a trip that you (well, most of us) didn’t go on*. Most of the uptempo songs pale when compared to their originals, in particular the Ziggy Stardust material, with which none of the players were familiar. The original sequencing of the record was odd: Visconti, with Bowie’s approval, cut up the performance tapes so as to track the songs in chronological order, so that the LP began with “Hang Onto Yourself,” had a nearly all-instrumental side, and ended with “Beauty and the Beast.” This was a complete distortion of how the shows actually were performed. Bowie generally opened with nearly an hour of new material (leading off with “Warszawa”) leavened by a stray oldie like “Jean Genie”. After intermission, he returned with a revisited Ziggy Stardust (though mainly its lesser-known tracks, so “Soul Love” or “Star,” no “Suffragette City” or “Starman”), a Berlin entr’acte (“Art Decade,” “Alabama”) and closed out the set with the monster songs from Station to Station.

“Alabama Song” was performed throughout the 1978 tour, with a version on Stage. The studio version was recorded 2 July 1978 and released in February 1980 as RCA BOW 5  (#23 UK, c/w the “acoustic” remake of “Space Oddity”). Performed in 1990 and 2002.

Essential for the history of “Alabama Song”: Daniel Albright’s Untwisting the Serpent: Modernism in Music, Literature, and Other Arts; Foster Hirsch, Kurt Weill on Stage: From Berlin to Broadway; James K. Lyon and Hans-Peter Breuer, Brecht Unbound (source of Lenya quote).

* Stage was also Bowie’s bald attempt to knock off two records from the remaining four that he owed RCA, though RCA successfully argued that the double-LP live album should only count as one.

Also, thanks very much to Time magazine, which chose “Pushing Ahead of the Dame” as a “Best Blog of 2011.” Finding my small, weird effort on the same list as the likes of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Nate Silver has made it a very odd morning.

Top: Lotte Lenya, New York, 1978.


June 22, 2010

Time (live, 1973).
Time (The 1980 Floor Show, 1973).
Time (live, 1974).
Time (live, 1987).

During his first US tour, Bowie had written sharp, vicious rockers (“Jean Genie,” “Cracked Actor,” “Watch That Man”). Yet by the time he returned to the UK in December 1972, something had changed. The final songs he wrote for the Aladdin Sane LP were sprawling, piano-centered mood pieces: the title track, “Lady Grinning Soul” and “Time.”

Some biographers claim Bowie found life as a newly-minted rock star maddening and constricting, so he began writing “art” songs to break out of rock & roll’s confines. That’s possible, though a more likely influence was Bowie’s new pianist, Mike Garson, who could play in any style and who had an intuitive sense for accompaniment. Unlike Bowie’s other major pianist to date, Rick Wakeman, whose relationship with Bowie was entirely in the studio, Garson first played with Bowie on the road. So Bowie became fluent in Garson’s style (the two would sometimes play in hotel bars after shows, on standards like “My Funny Valentine”) and he soon began writing for Garson as he did for Mick Ronson. (One could argue Bowie was already thinking about how to replace Ronson.)

Garson grew up in Brooklyn in the ’50s and, until his mid-teens, had intended to become a rabbi. Instead, he became a touring musician—first in the Catskills with the likes of Jackie Mason, then in New York, where he played in jazz clubs and backed Martha and the Vandellas. Bowie arrived in New York in September ’72 and put out the word that he needed a touring pianist, and one of Garson’s friends recommended he audition. Garson went into a room he later described as being full of men with rainbow hair wearing circus clothes, and got the gig after playing eight bars of “Changes.”

“Time,” which Bowie allegedly wrote in New Orleans during a stop there in mid-November 1972, opens with an 8-bar intro in which Garson plays what he later described as a stride piano line “a little left field, with an angle.” Stride had developed in the early ’20s —it generally meant playing a set of beats with the left hand while the right hand improvised on melody. Garson’s version of stride is overly stylized, aided by Ken Scott’s production, which pushes Garson to the front of the mix (mainly in one speaker) and emphasizes his tone’s treble qualities, so much that Garson sometimes sounds like a player piano (Scott is also responsible for mixing in two bars of heavy Bowie breathing after a verse).

The final track is an elaborate duet between Ronson and Garson. Each generally comps while the other solos, though they also strike against each other (take the way Garson’s rainfall of piano notes (after “I had so many dreams”) is followed by a Ronson waltzing guitar line). Or how, in the intro repeat midway through the track, Garson’s fractured stride piano line is answered by Ronson making three whinnying runs on his guitar. It’s a masterful dual performance. Ronson winds up quoting from Beethoven’s Ninth and Garson plays a free-time solo buried in the mix during the repeated ‘LA-la-la-la-LA-la-LA-la” outro.

“Time” is an odd composition: its chorus (if it even has one) is wordless; its bridge converts into a chorus/outro; and it has three verse variations, each of which repeat after the Ronson/Garson solo. The first set goes from “Time, he’s waiting in the wings” to “his trick is you and me, boy” and is mainly Bowie’s vocal over Garson’s stride piano and Trevor Bolder’s bass. The second variant, a more harmonically complex version of the first (it still goes from E minor to F to end in C, but there are more chords along the way), features the entrance of the full band. The third is harmonically different (going from C up to G, down to C again), and Bowie sings it at full drama (beginning with “the sniper in the brain”, or, later, “breaking up is hard”).

Then there’s Bowie’s lyric, which is terrible. You could read the most notorious lines (“time, he flexes like a whore/falls wanking to the floor”) as Bowie personifying positions on a clock’s face, but they were likely conceived more as grotesque mime imagery (one shudders to imagine Bowie performing it—his backing dancers threaten to in the 1980 Floor Show performance). The lyric is all pathetic adolescent cod-profundity—masturbation as a kind of philosophy (“I looked at my watch, it said 9:25/and I think, ‘oh God I’m still alive!’ oh, shut up).

Still, buried underneath Bowie’s dreadful language is a real sense of mourning. Bowie wrote “Time” after hearing about the death of the New York Dolls’ drummer Billy Murcia, who he had met a few months earlier. Murcia had a messy, stupid rock & roll death, asphyxiating after being force-fed coffee (his friends were trying to prevent him from sleeping after Murcia took too many barbiturates). Bowie references “Billy Dolls” being taken by “time” and in later verses seems to return to him (“perhaps you’re smiling now, smiling through this darkness” etc).

“Time” worked best on stage, where it served as recitative between the hard rock songs—a moment for Bowie to take a breath, smoke a cigarette, play the weary roué. So it’s no surprise the song was central to Bowie’s two most theatrical tours—the 1974 Diamond Dogs show, where Bowie sang “Time” sitting cross-legged behind an enormous black hand (a performance which veers close to Lily Von Schtupp territory), and the 1987 Glass Spider tour, where Bowie was borne aloft to the top of the infamous spider wearing fiberglass angel wings.

Recorded ca. 15-24 January 1973. It led off Aladdin Sane‘s second side and RCA issued an edit as a single in the US (radio stations bleeped “Quaaludes” but let “wanking” go through), where it failed to chart.

Top: New Orleans, 1972.