The “Narratives”

February 11, 2013

Dear Diary: today I met a number one packet sniffer

The Diary of Nathan Adler (Bowie performance, fragment, CBC, 1995).
The Diary of Nathan Adler, Or the Art Ritual Murder of Baby Grace Blue: A Non-Linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle. (plus annotations!)
“You Don’t Wanna Be Painting Your Face Like That…” Or, The Beautiful, It Won’t Rap, She Won’t Dance, Very Tricky Piece.

As I’ve said before, all this is true. Not that I’ve got anything against fiction—which is easily said, because nobody is writing it any more anyway. Nobody—they’re simply writing nonfiction that never happened.

James McCourt, Time Remaining.

At the end of 1994, Q magazine was preparing its 100th issue, a celebration of itself. Q asked Bowie to contribute, wanting him to keep a diary for 10 days and to send them the entries. As he was recording in Switzerland at the time, Bowie figured that a day-to-day account of his life would be “incredibly boring.” Instead, he asked himself “what would Nathan Adler be doing?” As Q warned its readers, “he’s written a short, strange, story, bits of which may or may not be autobiographical. The computer illustrations/portraits are by him as well.”

The “Diary of Nathan Adler, Or the Art Ritual Murder of Baby Grace Belew”* which Bowie reprinted in the CD booklet of Outside, became the “storyline” of Outside, the intersection between its characters and the songs that ingested them. Bowie had come up with names, voices and possible motives, and in the “Diary” he arranged the characters in a narrative. Well, not really. There are a number of ways you can consider the Diary. Here are a few to start:

1) Anti-Mystery.

The difference is that in the traditional detective novel there must be a solution, whereas in ours there is just the principle of investigation. Detective novels are consumer products, sold by millions, and are made in the following way: there are clues to an event, say a murder, and someone comes along and puts the the pieces together in order that truth may be revealed. Then it all makes sense. In our novels what is missing is “sense.” There is a constant appeal to sense, but it remains unfulfilled, because the pieces keep moving and shifting and when “sense” appears it is transitory. Therefore, what is important is not to discover the truth at the end of the investigation, but the process itself.

Alain Robbe-Grillet, interview by Susha Guppy, Paris Review, The Art of Fiction, No. 91.

While some of the Diary comes out of what Bowie had been watching, like Twin Peaks, Romeo Is Bleeding and possibly Wings of Desire (in the latter Peter Falk, essentially playing Columbo on vacation, walks around Berlin talking to fallen angels), there’s also the taste of French “Nouveau Roman” authors like Robbe-Grillet, who used the template of the detective story but withheld things like a plot and a resolution.( Robbe-Grillet’s Le Voyeur (1955) is about a crime that may not have occurred: the details change with every chapter.) So Bowie constructed the Diary in this vein: a set of contradictory flashbacks, precise “meaningless” details and vague “critical” ones, the reader forced to play detective, to no avail. It ends on a cliffhanger.

2) Analog Web Page. The Diary is a transcription on paper of what should have been a Web page, where its sentences would have been sewn through with dozens of links. The Diary breathes only through its portals. Confined to paper, it dies.

3) Art-World Snooker.

I favour the clever con artist who remains intact to the committed Fine Artist who ends up with his arms cut off or even worse (in the case of that Austrian blockhead—he would be Austrian, wouldn’t he?—with his dick cut off). I mean this is so romantic, it’s ridiculous…”the artist must suffer for his art.”

Brian Eno, “Internet conversation with David Bowie,” Q, January 1995.

Bowie had joined the board of Modern Painters, was conducting interviews with the likes of Balthus and was collaborating with Damien Hirst (standing on step-ladders and throwing paint at a spinning canvas). In 1995, Bowie had his first solo exhibition, at the Gallery on Cork Street (“New Afro-Pagan and Work, 1975-1995″; we’ll get a bit more into this in a later entry). So the Diary is a vicious little satire of the contemporary art world. Read in chronological order, the Diary lists the ante-raisings of a generation of “body” artists, from the Viennese mutilationist/fakers like Schwarzkogler to Chris Burden getting crucified on a VW Bug to Ron Athey’s “scarification” art. It also includes Hirst’s shark and lamb cadavers and the return to vogue of the death-obsessed fashion photographer Guy Bourdin (the heroin-chic waif look of the mid-Nineties was derived from Bourdin). So Ramona Stone’s alleged “art murder” of Baby Grace is just the next stop on an increasingly desperate line, and one soon outfoxed by reality. (Bowie in 1995: “Murder may be art. If you get away with it. Like, perhaps O.J. Simpson.”)

There are mixed motives here. Bowie was trying to break into a new game, hanging out with the hip new British artists like Hirst and Tracey Emin, and he seemingly wanted to be taken seriously as a painter. But the Diary and his later gleeful contributions to the “Nat Tate” hoax, in which the writer William Boyd created a fake Abstract Expressionist painter who’d supposedly killed himself in 1960, also suggested that Bowie thought the contemporary art world was credulous and ridiculous.

4) “Verbasised” Babel. The Diary is simply Bowie arranging sets of random words spewed out by his automatic cut-up word dispenser program, the “Verbasiser.” One tell is the “11:15 AM” entry, in which appears a raw block of Verbasiser text that includes the repeated words “RA Stone,” “Caucasian,” “saints,” “martyrs,” “tyrannical,” etc. The subsequent entry, “June 15 1977,” is what Bowie conjures out of those words. Note how many words from the Verbasiser stack he uses (e.g., “Caucasian Suicide Temple”) in it. The Diary is a crazed copybook of randomly-generated sentences.

5) Musemapping; Pre-Criticism.

I suppose you can never tell what an artist will do once he’s peaked.

The Diary dates in the “past” (July 1977, October 1994) coincide with periods of high creativity for Bowie. In the summer of ’77, he had been in Berlin, finishing Lust for Life and about to start “Heroes,” while in autumn 1994 he was deep in the distillation process, turning the raw Leon material into Outside. The Diary is an indication that in late ’94, Bowie felt the most inspired that he’d been in well over a decade. But it was also a way for Bowie to craftily frame critical discussion about Outside, directly linking the album to his Berlin period. And it worked: it’s all but impossible to find any review of Outside, past or present, that doesn’t mention the Berlin-era albums (this blog included, natch).

6) Tragedy. The world of Nathan Adler is a cruel, bloody and empty one. Fourteen-year old girls are eviscerated for art; Mark Rothko delicately slashes his wrists; mothers go missing, children are snuffed out. The young pierce and ink themselves, unconsciously following ancient tribal rituals but lacking the religious transformations those rituals had enabled; they merely believe that their bodies are the only sacred thing left to them. There are severed limbs, diamond-studded umbilical cords, webs of intestines, bloodstained tissues hung on wires. The galleries are full of bleeding men and the bisected corpses of cows. There’s no one noble in this world except sad Adler, a last soldier of narrative. He wanders along, serving as a witness and inadvertently as a conscience.

7) Gag Reel. Bowie wrote the Diary in a couple of days as a way to irritate/befuddle Q and his fans. After he released Outside, he never thought about it again. Well, there are a few nights when he will laugh over a bottle of Malbec, recalling how absurd the whole thing was and how wonderful that it’s become the subject of tortured, tedious blog analyses. He sips his wine, then flips open his laptop to write some more one-star reviews of Morrissey albums on Amazon.

bowie meets tricky!

Don’t hide the fragments. They’re all we’ve got left.

Q was a sucker for punishment. A few months after it published the Diary, it asked Bowie to contribute another article. This time, the assignment was for Bowie to interview the musician Tricky. Q possibly envisioned “Paul Weller Meets Noel Gallagher” or “Ray Davies Meets Damon Albarn”: a dues-paid member of an Important Pop Generation bestowing his credentials upon a worthy young aspirant. Instead, Bowie turned in something completely batshit.

“”You Don’t Wanna Be Painting Your Face Like That…” Or, The Beautiful, It Won’t Rap, She Won’t Dance, Very Tricky Piece” is a fiction (were it not for the accompanying photos of the two, you’d never guess Bowie and Tricky had really met) and the sequel to the “Diary of Nathan Adler,” with Bowie casting Tricky as Leon Blank (so Tricky as a character he inspired) and himself as a British Adler.

Opening with an ode to Tricky’s muse, his singer/partner Martina Topley-Bird (You, Martina, sang me down, under the turf”), the piece has “Bowie” looking for “Tricky,” prowling through the “low bars of Bristol,” being told that Tricky’s left for America, although he’d been “spied by the Magpie girl only last Thursday, slipping in and out of shadows down by the quay, drawing black lines on his own posters…the phantom was known to move as a group of one.”

jones and thaws

So Bowie sets off, gumshoe style, on the trail of Tricky Thaws. What follows is a text stuffed full of industrially-mixed metaphors (“the dark wisps of rumor trailed him like two-ropes and now I was reeling him in“), name-drops of other Bowie current faves (“round the corner of the building disappears a guy called Gerald“), an Easter Egg hunt’s worth of Massive Attack and Tricky titles: blue lines, black steel, Karmacoma, Maxinquaye, round the corner. And a few lines which have the flavor of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow:

But meanwhile the quiet English faces on the front row, in what could have been the glow of shepherds’ fire-baskets, nodded out their fleeting thoughts as they were Overcome. So this is the slow shimmering speed that loaned a few moments of the future to us all?

Bowie eventually finds his man. They climb a 97-story building, chatting as they ascend, occasionally scaring the cleaning ladies. They talk of “the War,” of the “haunting ’90s,” of the perils of being young again (“you’re tweeny-little, just a speck of a spindly-stick…by the time you are a teen, you’re in your renegade chapter”). Then Tricky, whether out of malice or mercy, kicks Bowie in the arm and Bowie falls to his death. His appointed successor has claimed his throne, and it’s a fine thing. This album is over. It was the best of chimes. It was the hearse of chimes. Here come the horse to drag me to bed. Here come the Tricky to fuck up my head.

“Nathan Adler” first appeared in Q 100, January 1995 and became the liner notes of Outside; “You Don’t Wanna Be Painting…” was in Q 109, October 1995.

*I don’t have the issue of Q, just a transcription of the Diary from it, and so to my knowledge very few, if any, alterations were made to the text when it was reprinted in Outside. While some sources have the Diary originally subtitled “The Art Ritual Murder of Baby Grace Belew,” a majority have it as “Blue.” Was there originally a joke about Adrian Belew in the title? Anyone who has the issue, please let me know. [edit: and it was Belew after all—see comments.]

Thanks to commenter Sean MacGabhann, who made the Romeo Is Bleeding connection in the previous entry.

Photos: Text in a sea of subtext; oblivious young men; masked marvel bums cigarette from spiv, 1995.


Segues: Nathan Adler

February 6, 2013

addled

Segue: Nathan Adler (1).
Segue: Nathan Adler (2).

What does Nathan Adler want?

I think Nathan Adler would require the world to come back to…certain parameters that he understands. He looks back rather nostalgically to a time when there was a seeming order in things. He’s really rather despondent that things are broken into this fragmented chaotic kind of state. Which of course it always has been. But in his own Apollonian way he sort of created the parameters for his society and how he should be. That’s him. And he’s got to solve this crime…

Bowie, interview by Moon Zappa, Interview, 1995.

Edmund Wilson, in 1944, wondered about detective stories: why were they so popular? why were so many of his friends and “respected” literary figures obsessed with them? So being Wilson, he read a stack of books and pronounced a verdict. He read Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe (“a dim and distant copy of the original [Sherlock Holmes]“), Agatha Christie (“[her] writing is of a mawkishness and banality which seems to me literally impossible to read. You cannot read such a book, you run through it to see the problem worked out“), and Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon (“a cold underworld brutality…[but] not much above those newspaper picture-strips in which you follow from day to day the ups and downs of a strong-jawed hero and a hardboiled but beautiful adventuress.”)

Wilson sniffed that detective stories were popular because they suited their shabby times, the interwar and war years, when the world “was ridden by an all-pervasive feeling of guilt and by a fear of impending disaster which it seemed hopeless to avert because it never seemed conclusively possible to pin down the responsibility.” In a mystery novel, by contrast, “the murderer is spotted and, relief!, he is not, after all, a person like you and me…[and] the supercilious and omniscient detective…knows exactly where to fit the guilt.”

Bowie’s Nathan Adler comes fifty years later, during another time of vaguely-perceived impending disaster. Speaking in an Englishman’s memory of a hard-boiled gumshoe’s voice, clad in the private eye’s uniform of trench coat, necktie and cigarette pack, Adler is the alleged protagonist and narrator of Outside. In his three segues (two official and one that’s part of “I Am With Name”), you might expect to learn something: background, clues, details on suspects, even a resolution.

You don’t get that. What you get is a stream of unaligned information: names, jargon, settings, incomprehensible actions. As Phil Sandifer wrote about the hip “paranoid” TV shows of the Nineties, especially The X-Files, which devoted years to sifting through layers of conspiracies within conspiracies, “the conspiracy does not provide an answer so much as it provides an interminable narrative stretching towards an answer that never arrives.” So Adler is a private eye who’s a red herring; his presence is a confusion. He’s a lost soldier of order who’s an unwitting element of chaos, and he’s as clueless as you are, if not more so (he may not have heard Baby Grace’s tape, nor is he privy to Ramona and Touchshriek’s thoughts).

This was a revision of Adler’s role. On Leon, Adler is far more present, speaking in each of the three suites. He’s still cryptic but his reoccurring presence acts as an adhesive that binds the bizarre suites together. On Outside, Bowie reduced Adler to cameo appearances. He was playing with the established role of the private eye: the loner who manages to break into a closed circle. Marlowe in The Big Sleep, Jake Gittes in Chinatown, Rick Deckard in Blade Runner. The private eye is a walking means to advance a story: he doesn’t know anything, so he asks questions; he pokes around and stumbles upon bodies and secrets; he eventually shades in the plot.

Adler* talks like his predecessors but no one talks to him, no one tells him anything. He’s not even trying to solve a killing but only to determine whether the murder qualified as art (he also works for an overseas employer: he’s a telecommuter). The screen detective he most resembles is Lemmy Caution in Godard’s Alphaville: an unflappable fragment of some lost narrative, blankly wandering through a world he can’t understand, still serving as a grounding point for viewers (and listeners, in this case). (Of course, a direct ancestor of Adler was Bowie’s cameo role as the lost FBI agent “Philip Jefferies” in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.)

The two Adler segues hail from different stages of the recording of Outside. The first is an edit of two segues from the “I Am With Name” suite and given a new backing track dominated by a jittery Reeves Gabrels guitar line (it’s possible it’s Carlos Alomar). The second, which is barely half a minute long, was recorded during a round of overdubs with Eno in early 1995 (it’s credited only to Bowie and Eno, unlike the other segues), and has Bowie muttering and moaning over a middleweight drum ‘n’ bass loop, an early sign of where Bowie would go next.

However, Adler also left a diary behind…

Recorded ca. May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and Westside Studios, London, with overdubs (and in the second segue’s case, the complete recording) at Brondesbury Villas Studio, London, January 1995.

* There’s plenty of speculation where Bowie took the name from. Candidates include the psychologist Alfred Adler, the 19th Century British rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler, the 18th Century Kabbalist Nathan Hakohen Adler (all dignified agents of order), and, Maj’s astute suggestion, Irene Adler. The name could also just be a joke about being “addled.”

Top: Gumshoe Jones.