Panic In Detroit

June 10, 2010

Panic In Detroit.
Panic in Detroit (live, 1973).
Panic In Detroit (live 1974).

Panic In Detroit (rehearsal, 1976).
Panic in Detroit (live, 1976, with the King Kong of drum solos).
Panic In Detroit (remake, 1979).
Panic In Detroit (live, 1990)
Panic In Detroit (live 1997).
Panic in Detroit (live, 2004).

In July 1972 Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman came to Miami for the Democratic National Convention, and whenever they went out on the street, a mob of policemen followed them. Rubin and Hoffman expected nothing less: at the 1968 convention, the Chicago police had made a sport of clubbing and gassing protesters outside the convention hall. This time, however, there was a rumor that a camera crew funded by Warner Bros. would be making a film of the Yippies’ adventures, so the police mainly just wanted to get into the movies. Each one hoped to be the cop on screen bashing Abbie Hoffman’s head in with a club. There was no movie crew, so it was a peaceful convention.

“Panic In Detroit”‘s leading man is a revolutionary/sex symbol who “looked a lot like Che Guevara,” as the singer remembers him (Bowie predicting the hipster Che t-shirt, and even better, the Che store). His old group, the National People’s Gang, has been wiped out, so instead he signs autographs, leads a few riots, and finally shoots himself, though he graciously leaves one last autograph for the singer.

The fall of the last revolutionary hipster is set in a post-riot, even post-apocalypse Detroit, with the lyric partially inspired by Iggy Pop’s stories of the 1967 Detroit riots. Yet just as influential was Bowie’s backstage encounter in New York with a former classmate from Bromley Tech, an unassuming, middle-class British kid who had become a drug dealer based out of South America. Bowie was taken with the idea that anyone, through stylish violence, could reinvent themselves into a famous counter-cultural figure. It was the glittering devolution of the American Left, epitomized in the Patty Hearst saga, the greatest show on TV in 1974 (Camper Van Beethoven’s “Tania”:“How I long for the days when you [Hearst] came to liberate us from boredom/From driving around from five to seven in the evening”).

“Panic In Detroit” is also Bowie’s instant snapshot of the America he encountered in depth for the first time, touring through it in late ’72: a country of empty spaces, fallen cities and sporadic violence. He told Musician in 1990 that one image that had fascinated him was of a sniper perched on a rooftop, dispatching random people on the street below him. “There were snipers all over America, on tops of buildings,” Bowie recalled (there weren’t, really, but Bowie was likely remembering Charles Whitman, who killed 14 people in 1966 during his sniper rampage from Austin’s University Tower, or even the “Scorpio” killer of Dirty Harry, who opens that film picking off a woman in her rooftop pool).

For Bowie, this America had validated his imagination—the dystopic worlds he had been describing in song for years had turned out to be real places, filled with glamorous decay and casual murder. “It was really happening,” he said. “Suddenly my songs didn’t look out of place.”

The power and drive of “Panic In Detroit” owes as much to Mick Ronson and the backing singers Linda Lewis and Juanita “Honey” Franklin as it does to any of Bowie’s scenarios. Lewis and Franklin’s long-held notes in the choruses give way to a series of sharp, echoing wails and shrieks in the coda. Ronson opens the song’s 8-bar intro with a fairly simple riff, but that’s not his game here—he shades Bowie’s vocal lines with menace, often pitting two guitar tracks against each other (like the minimalist solo he gets after the bridge), and plays sets of rapid descending scales, like the shift from D to E that ends each chorus. Woody Woodmansey’s Bo Diddley tribute (one of the densest, murkiest rhythm tracks Bowie’s had to date) is bolstered by congas and shakers. Bowie sings long arcs of melody in the verses, culminating in the title phrase—the verses and choruses bleed into each other, separated by a single bridge and a repeat of the intro riff. After Bowie’s last lines, Ronson and the rest of the band descend into madness.

Allegedly composed in Detroit during the Spiders’ first visit there (8 October 1972), “Panic In Detroit” was completed on 24 January 1973. A rarity in the last Ziggy Stardust shows, a regular in the 1974 tour (a live Philadelphia recording was the b-side of “Knock on Wood,” and it’s on later versions of David Live). Bowie remade the song with Tony Visconti, Zaine Griff and Andy Duncan (with a cameo by the Speak and Spell) in December 1979 for Kenny Everett’s New Year’s Eve Show, but their remake of “Space Oddity” replaced it—the revised “Panic in Detroit” later turned up on reissues of Scary Monsters and, currently, Heathen.

Top: “Anarchistische Gewalttäter”: wanted poster for the Baader-Meinhof Gang, ca. 1972. ” Beware! These violent criminals will make ruthless use of guns!” (GHDI).

Cygnet Committee

December 8, 2009

Lover To the Dawn.
Cygnet Committee.
Cygnet Committee (BBC, 1970).

People, especially young people, more and more find themselves in the iron grip of authoritarian institutions. Reaction against the pigs or teachers in the schools, welfare pigs or the army, is generalizable and extends beyond the particular repressive institution to the society and the State as a whole. The legitimacy of the State is called into question for the first time in at least 30 years, and the anti-authoritarianism which characterizes the youth rebellion turns into rejection of the State, a refusal to be socialized into American society. Kids used to try to beat the system from inside the army or from inside the schools; now they desert from the army and burn down the schools.

First manifesto of what would become Weatherman, published in New Left Notes, 18 June 1969.

This country is crying out for a leader. God knows what it is looking for, but if it’s not careful it’s going to end up with a Hitler.

David Bowie, interview with Music Now!, 20 December 1969.

And we can force you to be free
And we can force you to believe

“Cygnet Committee.”

“Cygnet Committee” begins as David Bowie’s break-up letter to the Arts Lab, a communal arts venture he had co-founded that was run out of the back room of a Beckenham pub, and over its near-ten-minute span the song becomes a bile-filled, self-righteous attack aimed at the counterculture itself.

So something whose roots are in petty, specific gripes (Bowie had hoped the Arts Lab (which featured everything from tie-dying lessons to free-form jazz performances) would be a free-flowing exchange of ideas, and found it was mainly a bunch of grubby, needy kids trying to latch onto the slightly-more-famous types like Bowie—“I opened doors that would have blocked their way…I ravaged my finance just for those”) blossoms into a jeremiad against the New Left, cult figures, false hippie capitalists, deluded kids and their various empty slogans (including “kick out the jams” and “love is all we need”): it’s an unrelenting damning of a movement that Bowie was barely part of.

Two centuries before, England had avoided the revolutions that overtook America and France, and by 1969-1971 it seemed like the pattern was repeating—where French students had rioted in Paris and nearly caused DeGaulle’s government to collapse, and radical American students were bombing the Capitol and the Pentagon, the UK had remained relatively quiet (“London was the vacuum of late 1960s rebellion,” Peter Doggett). So “Cygnet Committee”‘s sustained burst of rage and elaborate paranoia seems unearned. After all, what did the guy who wrote “Laughing Gnome” or “Space Oddity” really have to say about the Revolution?

Bowie wasn’t the only one to sense a blackness at the heart of the counterculture—Pete Townshend had just written a rock opera about false messiahs, pop cultism and the rise of mob philosophy (or just listen to the way Merry Clayton’s voice cracks when she sings “Rape! Murder!” in “Gimme Shelter”). For Bowie, “Cygnet Committee” is the portal through which he would descend into his ’70s obsessions—supermen, glam violence, glam fascism, cults of personalities and various dystopias—and some of those figures appear in shadowy form here, slitting throats, killing children, betraying friends. Although Bowie ends the song with a plea for love and freedom, you’re left mainly with the phrase “I want to live,” the simplest, humblest request that a human being can make.

The song seems like a patchwork of three or four different pieces sewn together (it has at least one recognizable ancestor: the second/fifth verses and the start of the third/sixth are reused from a Bowie composition called “Lover to the Dawn” which he had demoed with John Hutchinson earlier in 1969). Two fairly concise four-line verses (sung over acoustic guitar, a fluid bassline and legato electric guitar) are followed by a 13-line, 48-bar rambling monster of a verse, which begins with a basic 4/4 rock accompaniment and then slackens into looser, almost free-form lines. The pattern repeats and this time the rambling verse (call it the radical faction) now conquers the song, extending for over five minutes until the fadeout. There is a coherence to it all, as the three verses are in step-up pattern (they begin in D, Eb and F, respectively, with the “rant” section of the third verse, for lack of a better word, starting in A Minor). The final exhortation (“I want to believe!”) is delivered over twining guitar and keyboard lines.

“Cygnet Committee” can be wearying to listen all the way through (at least I find), as the players either won’t or can’t rock when the song cries out for it—if you’re quoting the MC5, you ought to be laying down some heavy fire. Bowie’s vocal, in which he seems to be bleeding and purging himself so as to be ready for the years to come, carries much of the track.

Several writers have called this Bowie’s “first masterpiece,” which seems an overreach, though Bowie certainly was clawing here after something grander and more resonant than most of his earlier works. For an artist often accused of being cold and calculating, it’s a messy, wildly human performance.

Recorded ca. August-September 1969, on Space Oddity.

Top: Bernardine Dohrn, La Pasionaria of the Weather Underground, Chicago, September 1969.