The Loneliest Guy

January 20, 2015

The Loneliest Guy.
The Loneliest Guy (live, 2003).
The Loneliest Guy (Parkinson, 2003).
The Loneliest Guy (live, 2004).

A very despairing piece of work,” Bowie said of “The Loneliest Guy” in 2003. Its subject is “a guy qualifying his entirely hermetic, isolated existence by saying ‘actually I’m a lucky guy. I’m not really alone—I just have myself to look after.'”

This type, a man cooped in his room and subsisting on art and memory, is a constant in Bowie’s writing. Go back through the songs and his sad face keeps turning up. The failed artist/academic who lives above an Austrian grocer; the man who carries a razor in case of depression; the coked-up magus trapped in his circle, overlooking the ocean; the assorted shut-ins of Low, like the girl with grey eyes and the man in the electric blue room; old Algeria Touchshriek. If one end of the Bowie spectrum is the charismatic on stage, the “Loneliest Guy” is the other: Bowie’s deep ultraviolet range. An isolate, a man unable to communicate, to get out of his head; one who expires for lack of an audience.

This wan, lonely character was as “real” as any Ziggy Stardust archetype, and as much of an autobiographical figure that Bowie ever offered. Talking to Anthony DeCurtis in 2003, he said that finally, in high middle age and having become a parent again, “[I] don’t have that sense of loneliness that I had before, which was very, very strong. It became a subtext for a lot of the things I wrote.”

So “The Loneliest Guy” sloughs off an old self, or does it? The man who said everything was in its place, who was utterly content, was perhaps projecting a bit. The “loneliest guy” here flicks through old pictures on his hard drive, poisoned by brighter memories (“the notion that our ideas are inhabited by ghosts and that there’s nothing in our philosophy—that all the big ideas are empty containers” (see “Reality”)). Had he really been boxed up at last? If so, what would it mean for Bowie’s songwriting, when the self closest to his muse was no longer in service?


In the same interview (with Interview), Bowie began to ramble through his thoughts, offering a taste of the sort of thing he tells his musicians, like “think Impressionism” to a saxophone player. He said his loneliest guy lives in a decayed, empty place, “a city taken over by weeds.” In particular, he lives in Brasilia, the modernist artificial city, built from scratch in the Sixties to be the center of Brazilian government and commerce. The city of a future that never quite came, its neighborhoods built in grids, its squares full of modernist stadiums and concert halls. It was Godard’s Alphaville in the Brazilian highlands. For art critics like Robert Hughes, Brasilia was “miles of jerry-built platonic nowhere infested with Volkswagens. This, one may fervently hope, is the last experiment of its kind. The utopian buck stops here.”

Brasilia was “the perfect standard for an empty, godless universe,” Bowie said. “The architect Oscar Niemeyer designed all these places thinking that they were going to be filled with millions of people and now there are about 200,000 people living there, so the weeds and the grass are growing back up through the stones of this brilliantly modernistic city. It’s a set of ideas…being taken back over again by the jungle.”

This wasn’t really true about Brasilia.* It suggested more Bowie’s old rotting Hunger City, the modernist grid turned dystopian playground, or the capitalist wasteland of “Thru’ These Architect’s Eyes.” This aside, the metaphor of a rotting Brasilia, a great modernist plan being eaten by nature, works as a description of the track itself. “The Loneliest Guy” is a song collapsing from within, moving as if sleep-stung, occasionally rousing to life, then guttering out again. Take how its remote E-flat minor key is woken by bright intrusions from E major (“steam (E) under floor (Ebm)”). The song yearns to pull free in its third verse (“all the pages that have turned...”) until a Eb minor chord snuffs out the coup (on a precisely-timed “oh”).

It’s such a lugubrious song, and Bowie’s character is such a colossal sad sack, that its miseries border on the darkly comical. It calls to mind Steve Martin’s The Lonely Guy, set in a New York where lonelyhearts congregate on city roofs to holler their exes’ names, who eat dinner alone with a spotlight trained on them and who politely queue on the Manhattan Bridge to jump into the East River.

Flavored by waves of David Torn’s atmospherics (it’s possible Bowie thought of the Pretty Things’ “Loneliest Person,” built on arpeggiated acoustic guitar), the song was built on Mike Garson’s piano. During the Reality sessions in New York, Garson played Yamaha digital piano (owned by Bowie, and loaned to Garson during the 2003-04 tour), then went home to California with the MIDI files to re-cut his parts on “my 9-foot Yamaha Disklavier, recording as [the MIDI] played back,” Garson recalled to Mix. So at mixing, Bowie and Visconti could choose between “synthetic” or “real” Yamaha on each track and picked analog for this one.

It was one of the most gorgeously-recorded of the Reality tracks, with the guitars serving as a string section, Garson’s chords resounding into deep space and Bowie hanging upon every note he sings, as if he can’t bear to let them go.

Recorded: (lead guitars, lead and backing vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York; (piano) ca. March-April 2003, Garson’s home studio, Bell Canyon, CA. Released 16 September 2003 on Reality.

* As per the 2010 IBGE census, over 2.4 million people live in Brasilia, making it the fourth-largest city in the country.

Top: Konstantin Maximov, “Copenhagen,” 2003; Jordi Colomer, Anarchitekton: Brasilia (2003).

South Horizon

November 30, 2012

South Horizon.

It’s the process, not the result, that matters to me.

Pyke, in The Buddha of Suburbia.

Where to begin when rummaging through your life? One starting place was jazz, a first love. “I want to be a saxophonist in a modern jazz quartet,” Bowie told Bromley Tech’s School Careers Officer when he was leaving school in summer 1963. In his memory chain in the Buddha of Suburbia liner notes, he included Ronnie Scott’s club in Soho, where as a teenager he’d seen a number of American jazz players. Bowie had already returned to jazz with Black Tie White Noise, thanks to Lester Bowie, but on that record he’d kept to contemporary fusion. Now, with “South Horizon,” he tried his hand at the avant-garde, and outsourced the job to Mike Garson, as he had in 1973.

Garson’s five-chorus piano solo on “Aladdin Sane” played against a basic rock rhythm track in 4/4: bass root notes, acoustic guitar and drums, constantly shifting between A and G chords. For “Horizon,” Bowie offered a craftier puzzle for Garson to solve. (Garson recorded his contributions in California, months after Bowie and Erdal Kizilcay had cut most of Buddha). Bowie started “Horizon” by monkeying with one of his Buddha soundtrack motifs, a brief trumpet/synthesizer passage, isolating a few melodic peaks of the trumpet melody, layering in percussion (both live and electronic), and then “all elements, from the lead instrumentation to texture, were played both forwards and backwards. The resulting extracts were then intercut arbitrarily,” Bowie wrote. He thought it worked: “South Horizon” was his favorite piece on the album.

Still, Bowie always talked a more dramatic game than he delivered; even his Low instrumentals formed by chaotic motivations have fairly standard song structures. And “Horizon,” although “intercut arbitrarily,” is in two obvious halves (the join is at 2:24), an opening “trad jazz” movement anchored by Kizilcay’s drums, and a closing “acid jazz” movement paced to a drum machine. There’s some bleed-through—the drum machine winks in about a minute into the “trad” section, while a trumpet motif that repeats every eight bars in the opening half reappears once more in the “acid” stretch—with Garson’s piano and Kizilcay’s walking bass being the main border-crossers.

The opening half of “Horizon” is spare, with a cycling trumpet motif (sometimes shortened, sometimes allowed to fully expire) and a set of four synthesizer chords creating a harmonic wash, while the lead perspective shifts between Kizilcay’s drums (themselves a dialogue between ride cymbal, hi-hat and kick, interrupted by occasional tom fills), Garson’s piano and Kizilcay’s bass, which starts challenging Garson midway through. The latter half of “Horizon,” kicked off by a groaning “three blind mice” synth pattern that returns twice more to break up the various solos, introduces a few new characters, like a second Kizilcay trumpet track (sprightlier and sweeter, as though happy to have escaped the loop that claimed its predecessor) and Bowie’s saxophone. With Garson doing the fireworks, Bowie’s content here to be a secondary player, offering support and a few mild variations to a dancing synthesizer melody that appears whenever he’s on stage. It’s as though we’re hearing a Bowie who became a “modern jazz” sax player in Bromley, but who never made it out of the suburbs.

Garson starts out in the “trad” section playfully, winking through a few scales, rumbling away on the bass end, jabbing against Kizilcay’s bassline, as if trying to undermine it. When the drum machine kicks in, Garson, after an initial darting melody in response, starts giving random commentaries on his fellow players, sometimes trying to drum them out with pounded chords, while playing a sweet counter-melody during the return of the trumpet motif; he closes with a fractured lullaby carried on his highest keys. Garson, on his “Aladdin” solo, sounded like someone who had managed to soak up every speck of music that he’d ever heard, and who was able to reproduce it at will, like God’s player piano. His work on “Horizon” is nothing as outrageous: it’s more concise, more conciliatory, still crafty. Knowing he could play anything, he often chooses here to keep silent, or just give a hint of some greater pattern.

The track’s weak link is the drum programming (whether Bowie, Kizilcay or David Richards, or some combination of the three): it sounds like someone playing on a tissue and comb when compared to the beats on key house/ambient/dance tracks of 1993 (see “Renegade Snares” or “Aftermath Version One” or “Planet of the Shapes” or “The Nervous Track”). Still, “Horizon” is the work of a restless, renewed mind that, in Garson and Kizilcay, found some fine tools to execute its ambitions.

Recorded ca. June-July 1993, Mountain Studios, Montreux (Garson’s piano was recorded ca. July-September 1993, at O’Henry Sound, Burbank, California).

Top: Stuart Griffiths, “Brighton, 1993-1994.”

Aladdin Sane

June 24, 2010

Aladdin Sane (1913-1938-197?).
Aladdin Sane (live, 1973).
Aladdin Sane (live, 1974).
Aladdin Sane (live, 1996).
Aladdin Sane (Bridge Benefit Concert, 1996).
Aladdin Sane (ChangesNowBowie, 1997).

Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris—all that succession and repetition of massed humanity.

Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies.

Bowie was scared of airplanes so he took a ship, the R.H.M.S. Ellinis, home to Britain in mid-December 1972. During the trip he read Waugh’s Vile Bodies and found, he thought, similarities between the novel (completed months before the 1929 crash, and whose narrative ends in a near-future with WWII already underway) and his own times. He soon got a song out of it.

At a London press conference in the summer of 1972, just as Ziggy Stardust broke, Bowie seemed unnerved by his success, though he had been trying to be a pop star for nearly a decade. Something disturbed him about his rise, he said, along with Lou Reed’s new prominence (“Walk on the Wild Side” would hit the Top 10) and the Glam boom. Once there had been well-groomed boys in matching suits on Top of the Pops. Now there was Roxy Music, who looked like extraterrestrials in a witness relocation program, or Slade and Roy Wood, hill trolls in Halloween costumes, or The Sweet, a bubblegum group who leered at their audience and seemed to be sharing a private joke. It was a sign that modern civilization had reached the point of absurdity—its entertainments had become bizarre and sordid, even menacing.

It is hardly surprising that they were Bolshevik at eighteen and bored by twenty…There was nothing left for the younger generation to rebel against except the widest conceptions of mere decency. Accordingly, it was against these that they turned.

Waugh, “The War and the Younger Generation,” 1929.

People like Lou [Reed] and I are probably predicting the end of an era. Any society that allows people like Lou and me to become rampant is pretty well lost. We’re both pretty mixed-up, paranoid people—absolute walking messes. If we’re the spearhead of anything, we’re not necessarily the spearhead of anything good.

Bowie, 1972.

In Waugh’s novel, ridiculous young people dress up in costumes, sleep with each other, have treasure hunts on city streets at midnight, drink and drug themselves to oblivion; it ends on a battlefield. “Aladdin Sane” was Bowie’s parallel sequel: a premature epitaph for his own lost generation. Though this time the party would end with a nuclear holocaust (hence the song’s (1913-1938-197?) subhead—Bowie seemed to really think that the world would end before 1980).

There’s a sadness and frailty to “Aladdin Sane,” set in B minor, with its lyric a meager collection of fragmented images—glissando strings, bouquets of faded roses. It’s as though Bowie realized the decadence of Waugh’s era had a panache his own time lacked. Bowie had just come off a months-long rock tour of America in 1972, and had endured/enjoyed the debauchery, the loud fashions, the noise, the bad food. It was a flyblown existence and Bowie wanted a nobler victim: in “Aladdin Sane” he invented a more glittering world to snuff out.

Bowie built “Aladdin Sane” out of sets of nine—there’s a nine-bar intro, two nine-bar verses, a nine-bar chorus, then another nine-bar verse and chorus, leading to the centerpiece of the track, and the album: Mike Garson’s 45-bar piano solo (or five nine-bar choruses).

The verse is an intricate little thing, sewn through with a three-note motif (F-E-D) that Ronson plays in alternating bars: the motif’s first only a guitar line, then in subsequent repeats Bowie sings the same three notes (“you’ll make it,” “I’m waiting”). The verse vocal is a call-and-response, with Bowie’s six-beat opening phrases, mainly staying on one note (“watch-ing him dance a-way“), answered by three-beat phrases (“dead ro-ses,” “don’t fake it”). The seventh bar of the verse is the variable, as it’s changed chords from the intro (from E to E minor*) while the rest of the verse is exactly the same as the intro. The seventh bar is first given dummy lyrics until, in the last verse, Bowie sings the title over it.** The chorus is simpler, moving to major chords, with its machine-like rhythms driven by Mick Ronson’s guitar, bolstered by piano and bass.

All of this is prologue for Garson’s solo. Garson has already undermined the verses, playing spiky lines that crash against Bowie’s vocal and Mick Ronson’s rhythm. Now he performs a magic trick.

Garson, in Trident Studios with Bowie, Ronson and producer Ken Scott, was asked to play a solo for “Aladdin Sane” over a simple set of chords (A to G to A, repeat indefinitely). Bowie gave Garson no guidelines, just told him to play what he liked. Garson did, and Bowie shot down his first two tries (a blues and a Latin-tinged solo). Bowie told Garson to go further out. On tour, Garson had told Bowie stories of the ’60s New York avant-garde jazz scene—of watching free jazz hierophants like Cecil Taylor. That’s what I want, Bowie said. So Garson sat down and played, off the top of his head and in one take, what is likely the finest rock piano solo recorded that decade, if ever.

Garson’s solo, at first listen seemingly random and chaotic, has a structure—it moves from dissonance and disturbance to the reassurance of memory, then breaks apart again, churning and spinning, until it’s finally yoked back to serve the song. The first chorus (2:04 to 2:21) opens with Garson playing a jarring four-note pattern that disintegrates, splintering into pieces; the second (2:22 to 2:40) is mainly his long, manic runs along the keyboard. The third (2:41 to 2:57) is a list of quotations—“Rhapsody In Blue” and “Tequila,” likely others (maybe a hint of “On Broadway,” which Bowie sings a part of in the outro). The fourth (2:58 to 3:15) kills that indulgence with three bars of furiously pounded chords and ends with the saxophone wending its way back; the fifth (3:16 to 3:33) is the return to earth, as Garson, bowing to time, plays the bassline midway through.

The outro is a maelstrom of saxophone squalls, Bowie singing “On Broadway” and Garson’s piano—the music closes in on itself, slowly fading off, finally leaving Garson playing alone and humbled, reduced to a rationed set of notes. Garson’s last stand sounds like one of Schoenberg’s Six Little Piano Pieces. Bowie may have sung about a fallen world, but Garson’s solo is what a weary, bloated civilization sounds like when it dies.

Recorded ca. 15-24 January 1973. Performed a few times during the last Ziggy tour, regularly during the Diamond Dogs tour (it’s on David Live) and revived in the mid-’90s after Bowie and Garson had reunited.

*Guitar footnote: It’s officially a change (acc. to the sheet music) from Esus2 to Em11.

**I’ve seen “Paris or maybe hell” sometimes written as “Paris, or maybe Hull,”, which might be a better line.

Top: Art Spiegelman, opening page of “Maus,” Funny Animals, 1972. (Collected in Breakdowns.)


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.