Leon Takes Us Outside

January 28, 2013

tricky bird

Leon Takes Us Outside (Leon suite w/”I’d Rather Be Chrome,” “We’ll Creep Together,” annotation/links).
Leon Takes Us Outside (Outside).

Of what was once a tangled forest, all that remains are a few saplings. So the opening track of Outside, “Leon Takes Us Outside,” a minute-and-a-half piece consisting of guitar, piano and synthesizer accompaniment for a voice that murmurs a list of random dates and holidays, is the only surviving piece of a 21-minute musical suite.

Likely planned as the first of the three Leon suites, the “Leon Takes Us Outside” suite, which begins with the “Leon Takes” fragment, devotes much of its length to two movements that have been bootlegged —the “OK Riot/I’d Rather Be Chrome” sequence and “We’ll Creep Together,” the latter unfortunately circulating in a maimed version. Where the “Enemy Is Fragile” suite featured a set of paired characters (detective/suspect, child victim/elderly witness), “Leon” centers on the mysterious figure of “Leon Blank,” outsider artist and possible killer/martyr. The only other voices appearing in the suite are those of Bowie’s various deranged narrators and of the detective Nathan Adler, who apparently sings the climactic “I’d Rather Be Chrome” sequence.

While Leon Blank’s perspective survives in several of the Outside songs (“I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” whose ancestor may be in the “Leon Takes” suite, is from his POV, for example), this intro fragment is the only time that you hear Leon “speak.” He’s just whispering a stream of random information, a conflation of American and British (Leon mentions both Michaelmas Day and Martin Luther King Day, says both “July 6th” and “5th March”), as though he’s programming a string of code, a sequence to wake up the machine. As Nicholas Pegg noted, its similarity to the buzz-and-murmur opening of one of Eno’s most recent projects at the time, U2’s Zooropa, is likely no coincidence.

leon can ya hear?

These ‘outside’ people were really the people I wanted to be like. Burroughs, particularly. I derived so much satisfaction from the way he would scramble life and it no longer felt scrambled reading him. I thought, ‘God, it feels like this, that sense of urgency and danger in everything that you do, this veneer of rationality and absolutism about the way that you live.’

Bowie, co-interview with Eno for Time Out, by Dominic Wells, 1995.

Bowie’s only published information about the Leon character was in the “Nathan Adler Diary,” which noted that Leon was a 22-year old of mixed race who had a rap sheet (including “plagiarism without a license”), and in one of the official Adler segues, where Adler recalled Leon jumping on stage at midnight and, wielding a machete, cutting “zeroes” in everything, and eventually ripping a hole in “the fabric of time itself.”

Even by the standards of the Outside “non-narrative,” the Leon character is a cipher. Still, he generally seems meant to represent the “outsider” artist figure that so fascinated Bowie and Eno at the time (e.g., their visit to the artist’s wing of Gugging Asylum). And in particular, the character seems partially inspired by Tricky, a young British musician who was a favorite of Bowie’s in the mid-Nineties and who Bowie would soon “interview” in a bizarre article for (see the upcoming “The Narratives.”)

Leon’s rap sheet seems to reference Tricky’s life. The son of a Ghanaian-English mother and Jamaican father, Tricky had spent time in prison as a youth for allegedly buying counterfeit £50 notes from a friend, who later grassed on him to the police. And by 1994, when Tricky had split from the rap collective Massive Attack and was finishing his debut Maxinquaye, he was arguably the most vital musician working in Britain. Bowie rewrote him as Leon, a boundary-shattering artist who gets caught in a narrative web, and he used some of Tricky’s sonic trademarks—ambient street noise, esp. the sound of rain, and Tricky’s own murmuring flow, which Bowie is arguably imitating on “Leon Takes”—as signifiers on Outside.

Was Bowie guilty here of fetishizing Tricky, or “outsider” artists (esp. racial minorities) in general? (The late Haitian-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat is also in the mix here—soon after he made Outside, Bowie would play Andy Warhol in Julian Schabel’s bio-pic of Basquiat.) We’ll dig into this more in the upcoming “Narratives” entry. But it was in keeping with an established Bowie strategy. He was an adventurer who needed occasionally to replenish his stock of forward scouts, so he appropriated various “outsiders” for his own ends, whether as collaborators or as symbols (or, in Iggy Pop’s case, both).

Recorded ca. May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and Westside Studios, London. Released (“Leon Takes” song fragment) in September 1995 on 1. Outside.

Top: Tricky and Martina Topley-Bird, 1994.