May 26, 2011

Neuköln (Philip Glass, “Heroes” Symphony, 1997).

I found I didn’t have a very good relationship with the sax and that lasted right the way through. We’re sort of pretty embittered with each other. It lies there waiting for me to touch it. It defies me to (laughs). I really have to go through traumas to get anything out of it that has anything to do with what I want it to say. So it’s not a steady relationship; it’s not a good one.

David Bowie, 1983 (“Bowie’s Saxophone Struggle,” Steve Weitzman, Musician).

David Bowie began as a saxophone player: it was his only role in his first band, The Konrads, and he plays sax on his debut single, “Liza Jane.” Bowie as saxophonist is a minor theme of his professional life, but it’s a consistent one—Bowie plays the brief, melancholy solo in the coda of “Changes” as well as some of the sax on Let’s Dance. Yet Bowie also knew his limitations on the instrument, which he had never mastered and which he would abandon for years (especially in the late ’60s). He sometimes brought in a pro when a song called for prominent saxophone, like David Sanborn (“Young Americans”) and Ken Fordham (much of Aladdin Sane).

“Neuköln” features one of Bowie’s most ambitious saxophone performances, and the determination of Bowie’s playing here comes as a surprise (Bowie later called it his favorite sax performance on record). After Bowie’s two warm-up runs on sax, it seems as though the pattern of the track is settled, with Bowie’s sax serving as an occasional counterpoint to Eno’s synthesizer patterns (which at the start suggest his “Big Ship” and his work with Cluster), some of which are echoed by a three-note guitar line.

Then (@ 2:45) Bowie begins an extended solo that continues for the remainder of the track. While at first submerged in the mix, the sax builds up steam until (around 3:50) Bowie erupts into a series of shrieking runs inspired by Ornette Coleman or late John Coltrane. Bowie’s sax closes out the track alone, with two wailing falling lines that call back to the faintly mournful synthesizer heard at the start of the track.

During the Ziggy Stardust era, Bowie’s sax playing had been bent on imitating the sound of early rock & roll players (Bowie aiming for the massed-horn sound of Little Richard’s band on tracks like “Watch that Man”) or of R&B/jump bluesmen, with the fat-toned Earl Bostic a primary influence. On “Neuköln,” though, Bowie wanted to go avant-garde, but the limits of his technique and of his allotted time compromise the power of his playing—it’s startling but has no real depth. As with its sisters “Sense of Doubt” and “Moss Garden,” “Neuköln” is built around oppositions: here Bowie’s squawking against a static wash of synthesizers. And as with the other instrumental tracks, there’s also a feeling of dilettantism to it.

Bowie titled “Neuköln” after the southeastern Berlin neighborhood mainly populated  by Turkish gastarbeiters (Bowie dropping an “l” from the name*). This created a persistent myth that Bowie had lived in the neighborhood—he lived in Schöneberg, though to be fair, it’s not that far from Neukölln. And Bowie later claimed he had used a “Turkish modal scale” for his performance,** which makes its sequencing into “Secret Life of Arabia” both fitting and slightly ridiculous.

So several critics have found “Neuköln” to depict the isolation of Turkish immigrants in a harsh city that used them solely for labor, or a musing on Islam in the West (Bowie’s sax does appear to imitate a muezzin call at times), or the fate of a faceless, nameless individual living in the cradle of the Cold War. All of these theories could well be true, and the image of a stateless traveler would be central to Bowie’s next record. But the speculations are also a testament to the brute power of naming. Had Bowie instead called the track “Tiergarten,” would it now be considered a rumination on Nazi persecutions, some veiled depiction of Rosa Luxemberg’s murder? A single word creates worlds.

Recorded July-August 1977, Hansa, Berlin. Used as the fifth movement of Glass’ “Heroes Symphony.”

* The misspelling led to speculation that Bowie was actually referring to the band Neu! and the city of Köln, but it appears to have been just a spelling error on Bowie’s part.

** The only clue Bowie gave as to what this scale was came in a 1983 interview, where he mentioned that the scale had “whole notes where one could take a half note,” suggesting it’s likely the Phrygian dominant scale or some variant.

Top: Don McCullin, “Mother and Son, Bradford,” 1978.