The Buddha of Suburbia

November 27, 2012

The Buddha of Suburbia.
The Buddha of Suburbia (“rock” mix).

Rarely now do we artists tell us much of ourselves. We are without history, interest or spiritual life. Our thoughts are often scattered and banal. Those occasional strands that have some merit are often stunted if not still-born. Although I get the sense that all art is somewhat autobiographical it seems increasingly hard for the artist to relinquish his solipsistic subjectivity.

David Bowie, liner notes to the original Buddha of Suburbia.

The suburbs were over: they were a leaving place.

Hanif Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia.

Black Tie White Noise, though it sold in the UK (hitting #1 and producing a Top Ten single), failed to “reestablish” Bowie as a commercial presence, which is just as well, as Bowie had been greatly ambivalent about being reestablished. The record stiffed in the US, in part because Bowie’s American label, Savage, collapsed a month after its release and filed for bankruptcy six months later. In a fine turn, Savage partially blamed its collapse on the performance of an album whose sales were hurt by its collapse; they would later sue Bowie and BMG for $100 million.*

BTWN‘s respectable, mediocre performance was an ideal outcome for Bowie. He had shown that he still could sell records, but he’d also deftly avoided being roped into touring for a year to promote the album (he’d been far more relentless in pushing Tin Machine II). And for once in his late career, he was able to push on quickly, to build upon the strengths of a previous work rather than discarding it and starting yet again from scratch. He’d established a beachhead; now he was moving inland.

It began with an arranged conversation. The author Hanif Kureishi interviewed Bowie in February 1993, and at the close of their talk Kureishi mentioned he was adapting his novel The Buddha of Suburbia into a miniseries for the BBC, and asked Bowie if the production could use some period songs like “Fill Your Heart” and “Time.” Bowie agreed. Working up the nerve, Kureishi then asked if Bowie felt like contributing any original material. Bowie asked to see the tapes of Buddha, and a couple of months later, Kureishi and the series’ director Roger Michell were in Switzerland, listening to Bowie’s score.

There were two stages of Bowie’s involvement in the BBC’s Buddha. First, he composed incidental music for the series.** These were generally a series of motifs—combinations of guitar, synthesizer, trumpet, percussion, sitar—roughly a minute in length each, which Bowie tweaked based on responses from Kureishi and Michell. Kureishi found the whole business surreal: watching rough cuts of his fairly autobiographical Buddha playing on a TV monitor while the idol of his adolescence workedthe mixing desk, which was dotted with dozens of buttons, levers and swinging gauges, alongside which were banked computers.”

Roughly a month later, Bowie went back to these motifs and, relying on his usual studio jack-of-all-trades Erdal Kizilcay, began tinkering with the pieces, extending them into six- or eight-minute loops, isolating what he considered “dangerous or attractive elements” and adding overdubs and occasional vocals. After a week’s recording and another fortnight of mixing, he had a new 50-minute album.

Released in November 1993 to little notice, listed as a soundtrack album and not as a new Bowie release, distributed only in the UK and Europe and eclipsed, sales-wise, by the near-simultaneous issue of the compilation The Singles Collection, The Buddha of Suburbia was a non-existent album, a ghost record, and it was Bowie’s best album in over a decade. If there is a latter-day “great” Bowie album, it’s this one; Buddha is only now beginning to get the recognition that it always had deserved.

Buddhas in Bromley

I am considered to be a funny kind of Englishman, a new breed as it were, having emerged from two old histories. But I don’t care—Englishman I am (though not proud of it), from the South London suburbs and going somewhere. Perhaps it is the odd mixture of continents and blood, of here and there, of belonging and not, that makes me restless and easily bored. Or perhaps it was being brought up in the suburbs that did it.

Kureishi, The Buddha of Suburbia.

Bowie found a fellow traveler in Kureishi. Seven years Bowie’s junior, Kureishi had grown up in the same London suburb, Bromley, had attended the same school, Bromley Tech, and had followed the same trajectory as Bowie: escape to London, a professional life in the arts. Kureishi started out as a dogsbody at the Royal Court Theatre and eventually became its writer in residence and a playwright, then in the Eighties moved into making films, scripting two directed by Stephen Frears, My Beautiful Laundrette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid.

Buddha of Suburbia, Kureishi’s first novel, published in 1990, used his Bromley adolescence as its backdrop. Like Kureishi, the novel’s protagonist, Karim “Creamy” Amir, is the son of a Pakistani father and an English mother. Spending his youth trying to escape the curse of lower-middle-class suburban life, Karim finally slips free of it, first via his father’s abandonment of his family and subsequent move to South Kensington, and then via his own success as an actor (paralleling Kureishi, Karim goes from avant-garde theater into television). One of the best novels of the Nineties, Buddha balances a minstrels’ gallery of characters (including Changez, an Indian national brought to Britain for an arranged marriage, who is obsessed with Harold Robbins and Arthur Conan Doyle; Pyke, a sexual adventurer and Svengali stage director; the would-be Marxist revolutionary Terry, who makes a living playing a cop on a TV series; and the Buddha himself, Karim’s father Haroon, a Muslim bureaucrat who becomes a Buddhist guru to earnest suburban Londoners) with acridly funny and astute observations on class, identity and pretensions (artistic, political, spiritual, sexual).

Bowie…had attended our school several years before, and there, in a group photograph in the dining hall, was his face. Boys were often found on their knees before this icon, praying to be made into pop stars and from a release from a lifetime as a motor mechanic, or a clerk in an insurance firm, or a junior architect…We had a combination of miserable expectations and wild hopes. Myself, I only had wild hopes.

Kureishi, Buddha.

When I knew I was going to be a writer, it completely changed my life because it made the present unimportant. Whatever was happening to me, the racism, the drag of being in such a violent school, were made unimportant because I lived in the future.

Kureishi, interview.

Kureishi had used Bowie as a symbolic figure from his earliest work (Bowie recordings are in his second play, 1980’s The Mother Country) and Bowie naturally figures in his novel, both as an actual cultural reference as well as an element in one of the book’s major characters, Charlie Kay (later Charlie Hero), a Bromley-born musician who molts from a would-be Ziggy Stardust local muso into a punk and ends the novel as a NYC-based rock star, a thinly-veiled Billy Idol (another Bromley kid made good).

Bowie, who had driven through his early childhood neighborhood of Brixton in 1991 and had a moment of bewildered nostalgia there, found in Kureishi’s novel and scripts a central observation that rang true to him: that the curse of a would-be artist who grows up middle-class in the suburbs is a restless and self-compromised ambition, the constant need to better yourself chased by the fear of being found out. The novel takes a generous view of this: its characters who thrive are those who manage to transform themselves in some way, like Karim, Charlie, Haroon and his lover Eva, who goes from suburban mystic hanger-on to upper-class home decorator. Even Changez winds up in a Peckham commune, happily raising his wife’s child by another man. Those who perish or wither, like Karim’s would-be fundamentalist uncle Anwar and his drunk, “respectable” aunt Jean, are those unable to discard the past.

Karim, on Thatcher: She can’t win: she’s too suburban.

Eva: We live in a suburban country.

Buddha, end of episode 4.

The rub is that this drive of self-betterment and self-transformation, this multi-colored suburban counterculture, ultimately twins with the impetus that drove Thatcherism—both novel and series end on the night of the general election in May 1979, with the main characters celebrating their new selves in an expensive Soho restaurant whose patrons are cheering the returns.

And although written in the Eighties by a man who was far from a Thatcherite, Buddha isn’t a criticism as much as it’s a bittersweet family history: showing how the ferment generated by the hippies, the communes, the suburban mystics and the Bromley punks was just part of a greater pattern, and that the economic “liberation” of Thatcher’s era wasn’t as much a reaction to them as it was a fellow radical movement, and the most successful of all. The revolution happened after all, but it was a suburban one. Kureishi’s novel and Bowie’s musical take on it are both documents from the aftermath, the notes of two survivors on the opposite shore, wondering how they had made the passage, now finding it hard to recognize the country that they had grown up in.

I felt the pleasure of pleasing others, especially as this was accompanied by money-power. I was paying for them; they were grateful; they had to be; and they could no longer see me as a failure…it was as if I’d discovered something I was good at.

Buddha.

Stockpile of residue

In the suburbs people rarely dreamed of striking out for happiness. It was all familiarity and endurance: security and safety were the reward of dullness.

Buddha.

Working on Buddha triggered something in Bowie: an introspection, a need to sort through the past. Film and book were a loving recreation of Seventies Bromley and Beckenham (e.g., Karim and Haroon stop off at the Three Tuns, where Bowie had run an Arts Lab in 1969 (see “Cygnet Committee”), and where, in the novel, Kevin Ayers is playing a dreary set, “whispering into a microphone [while] two French girls with him kept falling over the stage“). Bowie likely also found analogues of himself and people he’d known (he’d had his share of encounters with Sixties avant-garde theater) in the characters: Charlie’s magpie-like musical thievery, Haroon’s suburban mysticism, Eva’s ambition, Karim’s self-absorption and his openness to new experiences.

So for his Buddha songs, Bowie drew from what he called a “personal memory stock” of Seventies images, ranging from his teenage years in Bromley through late Seventies Berlin. He made Buddha a secret, abstract autobiography, perhaps the only one he’ll ever do.*** His songs not only directly quote from his previous work (especially the theme song, see below) but in total offered an impressionist retrospective of his past musical life, revisiting jazz, Eno’s ambient works, Philip Glass, glam, R&B, funk. Not as museum pieces or pastiches, but far more indirectly: most of the tracks on Buddha are answer songs to hazily-remembered past works, reinterpretations of the past, kept alive and contemporary, with Bowie using cues and moods from his old work and churning them up in the service of the future.

Bromley in the Buddha

Bowie’s title song was the only recording from the Buddha album that was actually used in the series: it played over the end credits of each episode (except ep. 3, which closes with an orgy scored to Ian Dury’s “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick”).

So unsurprisingly, of the Buddha songs, the title track is the one that most directly relates to the past; it’s the easiest of the set, a rewriting of and homage to Bowie’s turn-of-the-Seventies “Beckenham” songs: the guitar break from “Space Oddity” turns up (and the string of suspended, diminished and augmented acoustic guitar chords that undergird the song are very Oddity), as does the “zane zane zane” coda chorus of “All the Madmen,” while the melancholy flavor of its verses—Bowie’s voice, octave-tracked at times, circling within a cage of acoustic guitar, bass and synthesizer—calls back to the likes of “Bewlay Brothers” and “After All.”

His two-verse lyric keeps to the rough outline of Kureishi’s narrative (the book is divided into “In the Suburbs” and “In the City” sections). The opening stanza is suburban misfit angst, sung from the perspective of a figure who’s both Karim and a self-recalled Bowie: compare “Elvis is English and climbs the hills” with Bowie’s proclamation to Kureishi in their interview: “I knew at thirteen that I wanted to be the English Elvis.” (And Bowie also lived “near the railway lines,” which figure in his early “Can’t Help Thinking About Me.“) There’s a tension in the character, who’s both pushing for experience (“full of blood, loving life and all it’s got to give“) and has a middle-class kid’s terror of being different, of failing, of being shown up. The second verse finds the kid in the city at last, changing himself (or at least his clothes), liberating himself while still, in his heart, praying in suburbia for escape.

There’s tension and doubling in the song as well, with Bowie shifting from being a melancholy custodian of his folk years in the verses (the subtle arpeggiated guitars; the sweet, yearning top melodies) to a garish figure in the choruses, a revival of Anthony Newley and provincial showbiz (“down on my KNEEEES in Suh-bur-bee-yah!“). He’s reconciling two sides of his Sixties. The two solos are also different editions of Bowie: the would-be jazz saxophonist from Bromley takes the first solo, while the power-chording glam idol gets the second. (Bowie had Lenny Kravitz play lead guitar on a harsher, inferior “rock” mix of “Buddha.” Kravitz’s soloing is proficient, perfectly-played and soulless, top-rate simulacrum-music from one of the Nineties’ most pointless artists.)

Lovely and wistful, a shadowy collision of influences, “Buddha” was a minor hit in the UK and served its chorus role in the series well. But it was just the opening act for what Bowie would attempt on the Buddha album, much of which would make the “Buddha” song seem oppressively literal. As Bowie wrote in his liner notes manifesto, “a major chief obstacle to the evolution of music has been the almost redundant narrative form. To rely upon this old war-horse can only continue the spiral into British constraint of insularity. Maybe we could finally relegate the straightforward narrative to the past.

Recorded ca. June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux (Kravitz’s overdubs were recorded ca. July-September 1993, poss. at O’Henry Sound, Burbank, California). Released as a single in November 1993 (Arista/BMG 74321 177052, c/w “Dead Against It” and “South Horizon,” #35 UK)—the first track on the CD single is a mix of the original track and the Kravitz “rock mix,” both of which were included on the Buddha soundtrack. The album wasn’t released in the US until October 1995 (weirdly enough, there was a vinyl pressing made for Brazil in 1994). The BBC’s Buddha of Suburbia aired over four weeks in November 1993 and since has been released on VHS/DVD.

* Savage, in its suit, claimed that after spending $2 million in advances and video promotion expenses BMG, Bowie’s UK/European label, had “unilaterally terminated” its distribution agreement with Savage and had refused to pay $1 million that it allegedly owed to Savage. In September 1993, a cash-poor Savage said it had to return to Bowie the rights to BTWN. (Savage had laid off its entire staff on May 27, barely a month after the album’s release.) The case was dismissed and was finally put in the grave in July 1998, when the New York Court of Appeals refused Savage’s request to reinstate its lawsuit. “This drives a stake through the heart of this ridiculous case,” Bowie’s lawyer Paul LiCalsi said at the time.

** Bowie “was amazed at how little the BBC paid. Nobody had ever paid him so little in his whole life.” It’s unclear whether Bowie composed the two “punk” songs that Charlie Hero performs in the series, but if so (and I think he did), they’re pretty sharp parodies of the Sex Pistols and serve as Bowie’s belated nose-tweaking of punk. (More on this in future entries.)

*** While I’m skeptical he’ll record again, I think Bowie has at least one book in him, and hope he publishes it.

Top: Naveen Andrews as Karim in Buddha; first edition of Kureishi’s novel; original Buddha CD; “Buddha” CD single.