I’m Afraid of Americans

May 14, 2013

cheer

I’m Afraid of Americans (first version, Showgirls OST).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Earthling remake).
I’m Afraid of Americans (video, Trent Reznor Remix V1).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V2).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V3, Ice Cube).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V4).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V5, Photek).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Remix V6).
I’m Afraid of Americans (50th Birthday concert, w/ Sonic Youth, 1997).
I’m Afraid of Americans (live, 1997).
I’m Afraid of Americans (GQ Awards, 1997).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Howard Stern Show, 1998).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Musique Plus, 1999).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Live at the BBC, 2000).
I’m Afraid of Americans (live, 2002).
I’m Afraid of Americans (Live By Request, 2002).
I’m Afraid of Americans (live, 2002).
I’m Afraid of Americans (live, 2004).
I’m Afraid of Americans (NIN, live, 2009).

I never said, “The superman exists, and he’s American.” What I said was,”God exists, and he’s American.”

Prof. Milton Glass, Moore and Gibbons’ Watchmen.

“I’m Afraid of Americans,” made and remade over the course of two years, has no definitive version. It’s an Earthling album track, a soundtrack obscurity and, in its most popular incarnation, a Trent Reznor single remix, which was a minor US hit in 1997. Slot it as another of Bowie’s “stateless” songs, in the company of “Holy Holy” and “Strangers When We Meet.” Originally called “Dummy” (a Portishead nod?), the song came out of the final sessions for Outside in January 1995, its initial mix a fairly rote Brian Eno concoction of drum, synthesizer and distorted vocal loops, a few of which—a monotone laugh hook and a synth hook that pinged around an E-flat octave—persevered through most subsequent revisions.

Its first lyric hinted at Bowie’s renewed interest in David Byrne (see “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town”), its chorus calling back to the Talking Heads’ “Animals”: “I’m afraid of the animals!” Bowie howled, with an apparent vocal improvisation turning “animals” into “Americans” by the close of the track. Not making the cut for Outside, “Dummy” was quickly slated for Johnny Mnemonic, a Keanu Reeves-starring adaption of a William Gibson short story, which opened in May 1995.* But allegedly Eno told Bowie to rescind the offer, as the film sounded bad (one ill omen: Bono had been offered a role and turned it down). So instead “Dummy,” by now retitled “I’m Afraid of Americans,” wound up on the soundtrack of Joe Eszterhas’ and Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls.

This was the version of “Americans” that I first heard, as Showgirls, at least in New York in the winter of 1995-1996, quickly evolved from first-run flop into a cult film playing the midnight circuit. Given the ludicrous nature of Showgirls, (“I’m erect. Why aren’t you erect?” “Only people I know got pimp cars are pimps.” Only Road House has better lines), Bowie growling lines like “dummy wants to suck on a Coke” seemed appropriate—its lyric is basically poor Elizabeth Berkley’s plotline in the film. The Showgirls soundtrack, an uninspired collection of mild Goth and pop industrial, was released around Christmas ’95 and went into rotation, well at least in a few West Village and Upper East Side bars I frequented, more for its connection to the revered film than for any merit of its own.

I mention this because “I’m Afraid of Americans,” from my perspective, was the last Bowie song that had any purchase in America, the last song of his (chronologically-speaking) that I can recall hearing in public, Bowie’s voice intoning in a club or piping out through car speakers (mainly the track’s Reznor mix incarnation). In the US at least, “Americans” is the last Bowie song that rattled around in a wider culture, existing outside of Bowie fandom: its paranoid video was part of the TV compost of the late Nineties.

shwgirls

Maybe he was embarrassed that a song of his wound up on the Showgirls soundtrack, or he might have been looking for workable material in the time-tightened Earthling sessions. In any event, Bowie revised “I’m Afraid of Americans” in August 1996, changing the lyric’s protagonist to “Johnny” (a callback to Mnemonic, or perhaps to Bowie’s own “Repetition.”)

He kept the structure of the song, a one-chord vamp in F major,* mainly intact: spare verses sewn through with loops and hooks and given a near-conversational phrasing, Bowie keeping to a two-note range; choruses where multiple-tracked guitars kicked in and Bowie moved to his higher register, his phrases now spanning fifths (“afraid of the WORLD,” “afraid I can’t HELP IT”). For Earthling, he transposed and rewrote verses: the Showgirls version’s opening verse became the Earthling version’s third, while he put in a new opener that incorporated the “laugh” hook.

The remake was bright and “current”: its arrangement was a stew of everything from Nine Inch Nails to favorites like Underworld and Photek (the new opening line sounded like “Photek’s at the wheel”), its mix was in line with the post-Pixies, post-Nirvana “alternative” rock template of volleying between sonic extremes for verses and choruses. But the new mix was also cluttered, with seemingly every bar affixed with baubles: a keyboard gurgle, a feedback whistle, assorted static, twinging high synth note loops, a synth line in the chorus that sounded like “Macarena,” various Reeves Gabrels pull-offs and bent notes. For ballast it had its main hook, a riff sounding root and fifth notes of the F chord, carried first on keyboard and then, in the chorus, thundered by Gail Ann Dorsey’s bass.

So dedicated to spectacle, the Earthling “Americans” could fumble the drama: the climactic “God is an American” section began with Bowie singing over Mike Garson’s keyboards, a sense of lightness and unease (slightly suggesting Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” which Bowie would play live during the subsequent tour). But the mood died when Bowie then up-shifted to another chorus, singing, in strained voice, over jacked-up drums. Still, the tasteless shifts in tone and the over-the-top mix fit what Bowie intended: the singer was afraid of Americans, but his song was meant to cater to their debased tastes.

trentmix

Where the song’s first lyric had Bowie afraid of the natural world, in later versions his paranoia found richer territory. “Americans” were an easy target. By the mid-Nineties, with the Cold War wound down and the virtues of Yankee capitalism unquestioned, the public face of the United States, to some, was a bloated, drunken fan celebrating his team’s victory well after the game had been called. God is an American, as Bowie sang.**

As much as Bowie had been fascinated by America as a kid, as much as commercial success there had consumed him in the early Seventies, he never shook his view of the country as being fundamentally crass, incoherent and violent (he loved to describe his first visits to the US in 1971-2 as a time when there were “snipers on the roofs”). He explained the lyric of “Americans” to journalists by saying he was referring to the public face of America, the one that everyone else in the world has to see: its gaudy advertisements, its junk food, its all-conquering franchises, its action films. “I was traveling in Java when [its] first McDonald’s went up: it was like, “for fuck’s sake,’” he said. Meanwhile the “real America” of blues musicians and Beat poets (“the aspects of America that are really magical to us,” Bowie said) remained hidden, even (or especially) at home.

There was a bit of Gnosticism here: while the visible America is a false, fallen world, the true “magical” one is accessible only to those who learn to see it. What most of us see is just surface America, the backlot that “Johnny” walks through in the song while eating, driving, screwing, preening in the mirror. Even the false God (again, pure Gnosticism) who created the world is an American, and he’s busy drowning out any murmurs of resistance with Entertainment Tonight and the OJ Simpson trial.

But Bowie’s “real” America was just as tainted: blues musicians and Beat poets are just as commodified as Pepsi, as are “outsider” artists, punk rockers, skateboarders, rappers and any other potential subversives. They’re just less-attended wings of the same carnival tent. The fact that “I’m Afraid of Americans” became a minor US hit (like “Young Americans,” another jeremiad turned into a good-time song by the country it belittled) showed how the carnival endures: piss on the tent, and you get brought in and made into a fresh act.

afraid

Its video was a European tourist’s nightmare of walking in an American city. Some thuggish American will single you out for your weird clothes and accent, and chase you down; everyone’s armed; the street people are jabbering and menacing; the cabbies are lunatics; the whole place is overrun by machine guns and Christian fanatics. (Trent Reznor, looking like a Manson Family member and wearing Travis Bickle’s jacket, plays a convincing heavy).***

The video used Reznor’s first remix of the song, which was issued as the radio single. In it, Reznor scrubbed the track of much of the Gabrels/Eno jiggery-pokery, instead staggering new loops and riffs for ominous effects (a static grinding noise mixed right builds to swamp the first chorus). The bassline is held back until the second chorus, where it’s delivered via harsh, distorted guitar. Later choruses are shaken by jackhammer synth beats; “God is American,” chanted over a chanted loop that’s shadowed by an murderous bassline, is the last word: the song never returns to the bravado of its chorus again, instead just muttering its way to the fade.

For me, it’s the best version, but other spins of the wheel turn up equally appealing/appalling faces: the fledgling version trapped in the high trash of Showgirls; the geegaw-filled Earthling take; the Ice Cube remix, where Cube chases Bowie’s voice through the track as Reznor did in the video (“shut up and be happy!” he yells. “Superbowl Sunday!“); the various live versions that rely on the muscle-flexing chorus for effect. A hydra-headed song, “Americans” is Bowie’s last bitter populist moment.

miss america

Original version recorded ca. January 1995, Record Plant, NYC, and released in December 1995 on the Showgirls OST (Interscope 92652-2). The remake, recorded at Looking Glass Studios in August 1996, appeared on Earthling, while Reznor’s various remixes were issued on a US-only CD single (Virgin V25H-38618, #66 US), issued October 1997. Performed live throughout the remainder of Bowie’s tours.

* Most of the time the song stays on a F7 chord, but the guitars shift to F5 power chords to beef up the choruses. A C minor (the dominant chord of F’s parallel minor) makes a cameo appearance in the “God is an American” section.

** One ancestor to this song is Jackson Browne’s “Lawyers in Love,” a vicious late Cold War satire in a cheery pop package, complete with doo-wop breaks: it’s the US fulfilling its Manifest Destiny at last (“now we’ve got all this room! we’ve even got the moon!“), with God sending spaceships down to blessed America in time to watch us watch the six o’clock news, and where even the layabout Jesus Christ has to get a job. Browne’s prediction that “I hear the U.S.S.R. will be open soon/As vacation land for lawyers in love” was pretty much how it turned out.

*** Recall that around this time the papers were playing up a “wave” of German tourists being mugged and killed in Florida. Also, the ill-fated 1996 revival of Doctor Who opens with Sylvester McCoy walking out into a San Francisco street, immediately being shot by thugs and dying on an operating table thanks to American surgical malpractice.

Top to bottom: “Streetpix,” “Cheerleaders, New Year’s Day Parade, London, 1996.”; various fearful or fearsome Americans.


Outside Tour: The Nine Inch Nails Duets

May 2, 2013

dbtrent

Reptile (Nine Inch Nails).
Reptile (Bowie and Nine Inch Nails, first live performance, 1995).
Reptile (Bowie and Nine Inch Nails, live, 1995).
Hurt (Nine Inch Nails).
Hurt (Bowie and Nine Inch Nails, first live performance).
Hurt (Bowie and Nine Inch Nails, live, 1995).
Complete Bowie/NIN “transition” sequence (live, 1995).

And remember, with all original numbers the audiences are hearing numbers they’ve never heard before—so this makes for a varied stage act. It’s risky, because the kids aren’t familiar with the tunes, but I’m sure it makes their musical life more interesting.

David Bowie, Melody Maker, February 1966.

He didn’t want to tour again. Each of the last three times had been unhappy in its own way: Glass Spider had exhausted him; Sound + Vision had been soul-eroding; the Tin Machine “It’s My Life” tour had been soured by a bandmate’s addiction. But Virgin Records believed Bowie finally had something with Outside—pre-orders were starting to pile up and the reunion with Eno was getting press—and urged him to consider at least doing a short promotional tour.

So in May 1995 he began rehearsing for a provisional half-dozen shows. He retained the core Outside group of Reeves Gabrels, Carlos Alomar and Mike Garson and hired a new rhythm section. Sterling Campbell had the chance to join a band (unfortunately it was Soul Asylum), so he begged off and recommended his friend Zachary Alford, who had drummed for the B-52s and Bruce Springsteen. And Erdal Kizilcay, after having served as a bassist/Johnny do-it-all since the mid-Eighties, was unceremoniously cut loose, for good. Bowie’s new bassist was Gail Ann Dorsey, a busy session musician and occasional solo artist, who Bowie had first seen playing Bobby Womack’s “You’re Welcome, Stop on By” on The Tube.

Pleased with his band and intrigued to play his new Outside material, Bowie agreed to expand the tour: six weeks in America and another four months, off and on, in the UK and Europe. Bowie hired a keyboardist, Peter Schwartz, to serve as musical director. As Paul Trynka noted, this was a political move, getting Bowie off the hook, as he didn’t have to choose a “favorite son” among Garson, Alomar and Gabrels, all of whom had been directors in past tours.

I really want, for the rest of my working career, to put myself in a place where I’m doing something that’s keeping my creative juices going, and you can’t do that if you’re just trotting out cabaret-style big hits.

Bowie, 1995.

With “Sound + Vision” as the template for what he didn’t want to do, Bowie crafted a fairly radical set: over half of the songs were from a record that, for the first few weeks of the tour, hadn’t been released. (And were still fresh for Bowie: a reviewer noticed him cribbing lyrics from sheets of paper.) Bowie claimed his revived songs were “obscure even to my oldest fans,” a bit of an overstatement. But even those who knew the likes of “Andy Warhol” (its inclusion owed to Bowie’s recent portrayal of Warhol in Basquiat) may not have recognized them at first: e.g., the trip-hop reclamation of “Man Who Sold the World,” with its signature guitar riff erased. Many younger attendees thought Bowie was covering the late Kurt Cobain.

Some old songs were included for thematic or sonic ties to Outside: “Joe the Lion,My Death” and “Nite Flights.” Bowie mainly harvested from his late Seventies works, an acknowledgement that the “Berlin” records had become the hippest Bowie albums of the Nineties and that he was bored with glam-era standards. “I compile cassettes of the obscurer stuff for the car. It would be wonderful to play live stuff I want to hear myself. Before I tended to pander to the audience,” he said.

So the “Outside” tour included a pair from Low (“What in the World,”Breaking Glass”), a trio from Lodger (“Look Back in Anger,“Boys Keep Swinging” and “DJ”) and, for an occasional closer, the live debut of “Teenage Wildlife.” A few concessions came later in the tour, when Bowie brought in “Under Pressure” as a duet with Dorsey. When he moved to the UK and Europe, he occasionally played “Moonage Daydream” as a closer and “Diamond Dogs” as a mid-set booster.1

bowieNIN

Bowie’s gambit was choosing Nine Inch Nails as his opening act for the US leg. He had never done anything like this before: having a younger, hungrier band open for him. (“The most aggressive band ever to enter the Top Five,” Bowie crowed to the New York Daily News.) He risked being blown off the stage, being made to look old.2

But he needed to upgrade the brand again. His management team had commissioned a survey of teenagers in the summer of 1995 and found the kids had “a brutal disregard for history and legacies.” When asked what words came to mind when they heard “David Bowie,” responses included “gay” and “Let’s Dance.” As per David Buckley’s bio, the survey writers suggested a radical revision of the Bowie image, such as making “a new-blood hip hop and rave album of new workings of old songs.” (Another suggestion: collaborate with DeVante Swing).

By the summer of 1995, Nine Inch Nails had become the most popular “industrial” band in the US: The Downward Spiral and Pretty Hate Machine were both certified platinum, “Closer” was a constant on MTV and NIN had been touring almost non-stop for a year.  Introduced to NIN’s music by Reeves Gabrels during the Tin Machine tours, Bowie also was flattered to read interviews with Trent Reznor in which Reznor had praised him, saying he’d listened to Low daily while making Downward Spiral. He was also taken by Reznor’s melodicism, finding that the man who howled “I wanna fuck you like an ANIMAL!” in arenas each night was a secret rock classicist. “Once you get past the sonic information, [his] actual writing abilities are very well grounded…every era of rock is actually in there, even though it’s in this guise of apocalyptic music,” Bowie said of Reznor. “There’s actually Beatles harmonies in there.”

I think [Reznor] is a keenly intelligent young man, very focused, and quite shy. I guess people said that about me as well.

Bowie, Hartford Courant, 1995.

Although he was exhausted from touring, Reznor agreed to support Bowie. He later said he was terrified of Bowie at first, that he would inwardly recoil when seeing him backstage, not wanting to talk to him. I felt I had to impress him. I had to impress his band. I couldn’t just let my hair down. (That said, this interview with MTV’s Kennedy, shot the night before the first concert, finds Bowie and Reznor being goofy and self-effacing, and seemingly comfortable with each other.)

Their lives had parallels: both had been suburban misfits and dreamers (although Reznor, who came from Mercer, Pennsylvania, had a far more isolated childhood, culturally), both had done time in the minor leagues. Bowie’s journeyman Sixties were similar to Reznor’s Eighties, where he bounced between bands, got bit parts in movies (he’s in the Michael J. Fox “rock” movie Light of Day), worked as a janitor/engineer at a Cleveland studio.

And Reznor in 1995 was where Bowie had been two decades earlier: famous, controversial, cracking up, hooked on cocaine. On the Outside tour, Bowie quietly served as a grounding point for Reznor; he offered, in his music and his performances (on and off stage), the potential of a future. His main vice now was chain-smoking Gitanes. He seemed comfortable in himself, but he wasn’t self-satisfied; he wanted a new audience, and was willing to work for them; he was confident enough, or unhinged enough, to risk embarrassing himself by howling about Ramona A. Stone on stage instead of playing “Changes” again. (Well, perhaps Bowie had become a bit stodgy: NIN’s dressing room was a haven for some of his band, who, according to Reznor, “didn’t want to sit around talking about fucking German art movies. They wanted to hang out.”)

Bowie and Reznor designed an interim sequence to bridge their sets. There would be no NIN encore. Instead Bowie, then his band, would join NIN on stage, then NIN would depart, leaving Reznor singing with Bowie’s band. The sequence also worked, thematically, as a lead-in to the Outside songs. The inter-set began with “Subterraneans” and “Scary Monsters,” the latter ret-conned into a song about Baby Grace. Then Bowie, in a duet with Reznor, sang NIN’s “Reptile.”3

dbtren

[Adolescents] go through a grimly day-to-day existence. There doesn’t seem to be the bounce that I remember when I was the same age.

Bowie, ca. 1995.

The Downward Spiral, Reznor said, was a 14-track document of someone who was systematically purging himself of anything that tied him to humanity. The record is sequenced to build to “a certain degree of madness,” climaxing with “Big Man With a Gun,” whose lyric was later cited by the likes of Bob Dole and William Bennett as being so morally degenerate that Reznor’s record company should have dumped him for making it. (The furor was one reason Time Warner sold its shares in Interscope, Reznor’s label, in late 1995.)

Two tracks later was “Reptile,” where alienation has corroded even the idea of sex, the singer equating ejaculation with contamination, his girlfriend with a reptile, a whore, a succubus. She spreads herself wide open to let the insects in…seeds from a thousand others drip down from within. The singer turns the blade on himself in the second verse: he’s worthless, vile, a corrupter corrupted (“Reptile” can seem like Reznor’s sideways sequel to “Scary Monsters.”)

The NIN cut began with pizzicato string loops set against clanking mass production noises, its verses sung over a percussion battery that was punctuated by what sounded like piston/carriage returns. But Reznor countered this mechanical ominousness with glimpses of tonality, still moments of beauty: take the interlude (5:14) marked by a whole-tone rise on keyboard from D to A-flat, reminiscent of a Low Side B instrumental. This had been Reznor’s trait since he started Nine Inch Nails: he humanized the societal indictments of classic industrial music, leavened the industrial sound with, as Bowie pointed out, classic rock melodies and chords. As Alec Wilkinson wrote, “industrial music insisted that modern life had become a shipwreck. Reznor made the ruination specific to a single person.”

Playing “Reptile,” Bowie and Reznor traded off lines in the verses (Bowie, still in character from “Scary Monsters,” gave his best Mockney to lines like “leaves a trayyl of hunn-eey“) and harmonized in the chorus. Reznor kept the big dramatic vocal moments (“REPTILE!” or the howled “LOVELESS!”), while Bowie, when he wasn’t singing, swayed and kept upstage, as if being buffeted by the noise the two bands were churning out.

Bowie delighted in singing the type of lyric that would be cited by the PMRC in press releases as a sign of cultural decay and the “seedy artist” persona that he favored for the early Outside shows also suited the song. Bowie added a necessary theatricality to performances of “Reptile” that otherwise veered towards the bludgeoning—the melodic/industrial tension of the studio “Reptile” was often diminished live in favor of a thudding, corrosive power.

dbnin

[“Hurt”] sounded like something I could have recorded in the 60s. There’s more heart and soul and pain in that song than any that’s come along in a long time.

Johnny Cash.

That song came from a pretty private, personal place for me. So it seemed like, well, that’s my song…Here’s this thing I wrote in my bedroom in a moment of frailty and now Johnny Cash is singing it. It kind of freaked me out..It felt invasive. It was like my child. It was like I was building a home and someone else moved into it…[But] I haven’t listened to my version since then.

Trent Reznor, on Cash’s version of “Hurt.”

After “Hallo Spaceboy,” the NIN/Bowie sequence ended with a performance of “Hurt,” the closing track of Downward Spiral. Where “Reptile” was bluster and comic vileness, “Hurt” was a kid alone in his bedroom, staring at a wall, rubbing the barely-scabbed scar on his wrist, too numb to even hate himself.  The song was a “valentine to the sufferer,” Reznor later said. There’s a defiance in Reznor’s singing on the studio track, moving from the steady whisper of the early verses (suggesting that if Reznor had taken up guitar instead of keyboard, he would’ve sounded like Elliot Smith) to the bravado of the chorus: the kid delights in still being able to hurt someone else.

In 2002, a dying Johnny Cash recorded “Hurt” for what would be his last album. Rick Rubin had given Cash a mix tape of potential covers, including the Cure’s “Lovesong” and Reznor’s “Hurt.” Cash was struck by the latter. He sang it “100 times before I went and recorded it, because I had to make it mine.” Cash’s “Hurt,” with the cold gravitas he gave to Reznor’s words, the way he seemed to inhabit the song’s plaintive melody, made Reznor’s original seem like an imitation. It was an old man sacking a young man’s lament, taking up residence in the ruins.

Cash’s “Hurt” rebuked the future that Bowie had offered Reznor in 1995. A dying old man tells a teenager that no, it really doesn’t get better, that your losses and your miseries only deepen with age, that life is, at its root, catastrophic. But it’s still terrible when you have to leave it behind. A teenager cutting himself in his bedroom at least still has his premises; death still has an air of romance. Cash, in “Hurt,” just has shot memories that aren’t worth the price of salt. Cash took “Hurt” to its serest limits, singing it as if Cormac McCarthy had written it for Blood Meridian. Take the power with which he sings Reznor’s chorus, the best lyric Reznor ever wrote, Cash’s steady roar paced by the repeated staccato piano note:

What have I become,
My sweetest friend.
Everyone I know
Goes away in the end.

Cash grew up Pentecostal and he never deserted Christianity, though at times it seemed that his relations with God were like Tolstoy’s (“two bears in the same den,” as Gorky said of the latter). Cash’s “Hurt” is a broken Calvinism: we are mostly damned, mortal life can never provide transcendence. If there’s another life, well, maybe there’s meaning there, but this one’s shot. Then, the last verse: Cash wonders if he could start again. He considers a resurrection somewhere else, he’s so emptied of his life that he’s finally entertaining hope.

Bowie, in his performances of “Hurt” with Reznor, stood at a remove from the Reznor’s original adolescent misery and the valetudinarian misery of Cash’s. As with “Reptile,” he slightly burlesqued the song, intoning the opening verse in the Dracula-is-risen voice he’d used for high camp moments like “Cat People.” In 1995, standing in the middle of life, his pains behind him, Bowie got a kick in trying on an adolescent’s garb again. He took “NIN’s nihilistic anthems and twisted them into perverse serenades,” wrote the critic Ken Bogle, who saw the Seattle gig. Compared to the Cash cover, Bowie’s performances of “Hurt” can seem flimsy, grandiose. But he’s also reassuring. In his chorus duets with Reznor, Bowie has authority, taking the higher harmony, with Reznor sounding like a kid singing along (flatly at times) to a record. In his odd way, Bowie’s an embodiment of hope here. The young and the old can become so dedicated to misery; Bowie makes middle age seem like a lark, the only time when we have the freedom not to be serious.

db

I’m playing to a hardcore Nails fan between the ages of 14 and 22…they can often be found body-surfing during my version of Jacques Brel’s “My Death.”

Bowie, 1995.

Reeves Gabrels described the audiences at the NIN/Bowie shows as a changing of the tribes. When NIN was playing, most of the Bowie fans were in the lobby; when Bowie was on, the NIN fans went to the lobby, or just left. So Bowie had keep up the momentum of the NIN sets or he’d soon face rows of empty seats. At times it didn’t work: only half the audience remained by the end of one Meadowlands show, and in Seattle “most of Bowie’s newer stuff left the crowd arm-crossingly bored,” Bogle wrote. Bowie tightened his performances, pushed his band. “We had to adjust emotionally to the fact that we were going to be challenged every night,” he said. “It did help me understand a certain aesthetic that was needed to do live performances in front of younger crowds.” Alford recalled to Marc Spitz that this tension is what “made it seem real for David…not knowing what the audience would do at the end of each song.”

The Outside tour generally got fair to poor reviews. Hearing the likes of “Voyeur of Utter Destruction” and “I’m Deranged” for the first time on stage, some reviewers found the new songs incoherent and unmemorable. The Philadelphia Inquirer: Charged with bringing life to his dim new works, Bowie looked like a stiff, robot-ish shell of his former self. This was…the sound of a lost soul, an artist so determined to position himself “ahead” of the culture that he’d neglected the basics. Like songwriting.” The New York Times: “His new songs are oddly made, as if designed to envelop the listener rather than to leave catchy memories…[Bowie] was trying to hold together songs that seemed to dissolve before they ended.”

When the tour moved to the UK in November 1995, with Morrissey now (briefly) the opening act, Bowie’s fight against nostalgia grew more pitched, as he lacked the potential young converts the NIN gigs had brought him.4 Christopher Sandford, attending one of the Wembley gigs, recalled seeing businessmen in hospitality suites, drinking wine and networking, while a raving Bowie performed below them. Fans came dressed as Ziggy Stardust and Halloween Jack and got “Small Plot of Land” instead. The UK papers were often harsh. The Times: an uphill slog…Bowie appeared from behind the drum kit singing and walking as if in his sleep. Or the amazing splenetic rant by Simon Williams in the NME: “El Bowza’s latest lurch away from reality is entitled Outside, which is kind of about ‘outsiders’ and involves all these strange neo-futuristic characters running around El Bowza’s head and it’s sort of a concept album blah blah bollocks blah blah ARSE!!!!!!!

All that remains are the recordings of the shows. Here, removed from the din of expectations and resentments and bewilderments, is Bowie in fighting trim, backed by one of the finest stage bands of his career, remorselessly blasting through one of his most adventurous sets. It’s fair to say that posterity backed Bowie’s play: the Outside tour was a marvel, with Bowie at his most alive and shameless.

hurt

1: Consider the Outside tour the one Bowie never gave after Scary Monsters. The set lists were fluid throughout the US leg (14 September-31 October 1995). The “pre-release” shows in September often opened (after the NIN hand-off) with “Voyeur of Utter Destruction” and “Hearts Filthy Lesson.” Bowie front-loaded the Outside songs until, triggered by “Jump They Say,” he closed with a run of older pieces (often with “Nite Flights” or “Wildlife” as a set-ender). By mid-October, sets were starting with “Look Back in Anger” or “Architects Eyes.” Reeves Gabrels opened before NIN but eventually gave up after being worn out by the collected indifference of NIN fans.

The UK/Ireland shows (14 November-13 December 1995) had a more stable setlist. No longer having to slot uptempo songs first to keep momentum going from the NIN sets, Bowie was free to begin moodily, and he did: “The Motel” and “Small Plot of Land” were usual openers. This leg is where “DJ,” “Boys Keep Swinging” and “Daydream” were incorporated into sets. Bowie’s live staple “White Light/White Heat” turned up in some of the last European shows (17 January-20 February 1996) and would appear during the 1996 festival tour (see “Telling Lies”).

2: Sure, Duran Duran had opened for some dates of the Glass Spider tour in 1987, but they were past their peak. NIN opening for Bowie in 1995 was as if the Clash had opened for him in 1978.

3: This is how the sequence worked, at least in the early shows, but as seen in the “complete” clip above, the Bowie band and NIN were playing together on “Scary Monsters” at some point.

4: It’s telling that Bowie chose not to attend his induction to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in January 1996, instead playing a gig in Helsinki that night. (Madonna and David Byrne inducted him.)

Sources: Reznor & Cash quotes on “Hurt”: Anthony DeCurtis, In Other Words: Artists Talk About Life and Work; on Cash and “Hurt”: Graeme Thomson, The Resurrection of Johnny Cash: Hurt, Redemption and American Recordings; on “Reptile”: Mitchell Morris, “Musical Virtues”; on Reznor: Alec Wilkinson, “Music From the Machine,” New Yorker, 12 December 2012. Bowie quotes are from various interviews of the 1995-1996 period, mainly compiled by Pegg, Thompson, Buckley, Trynka and Spitz.

Top-bottom: shots from various Bowie/NIN shows, September-October 1995.


Hallo Spaceboy

April 2, 2013

chloe95

Hallo Spaceboy.
Hallo Spaceboy (Pet Shop Boys remix).
Hallo Spaceboy (Lost In Space mix).
Hallo Spaceboy (Double Click mix).
Hallo Spaceboy (with Nine Inch Nails, first live performance, 1995).
Hallo Spaceboy (with Nine Inch Nails, live, 1995).
Hallo Spaceboy (Later With Jools Holland, 1995).
Hallo Spaceboy (Det Kommer Mera, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (Karel, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (with Pet Shop Boys, TOTP, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (with Pet Shop Boys, Brit Awards, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, Phoenix Festival, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, Loreley Festival, 1996).
Hallo Spaceboy (with the Foo Fighters, 50th Birthday concert, 1997).
Hallo Spaceboy (Pet Shop Boys, live, 1997).
Hallo Spaceboy (BBC, 2000).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, 2002).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, 2002).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, 2003).
Hallo Spaceboy (live, 2004).

Brion Gysin died of a heart attack on Sunday morning, July 13, 1986. He was the only man I have ever respected. I have admired many others, esteemed and valued others, but respected only him. His presence was regal without a trace of pretension. He was at all times impeccable…Brion was suffering from emphysema and lung cancer. He knew he had only a few weeks to live. I was preparing to go to Paris when Brion died. I have this last glimpse through a letter in her own English, from my friend Rosine Buhler:

“…After occurs a dreamlike talk about to have a large house by the sea in August, the shadowed room where all is burning hot outside. Brion said he knew he would sleep well and was really happy of that good day. He wanted no help to lift himself up from his green armchair, and went to his room. I was watching his tall straight way to walk, his secure path…only kings and wild people have this way.”

William S. Burroughs, introduction to Gysin’s The Last Museum.

Brion Gysin liked to say he was a man from nowhere. Even his name was a mistake: his mother had christened him John Clifford Brian, but a passport clerk, misreading Gysin’s crabbed handwriting, swapped in an “o” for an “a” in the latter name (“like the famous wine of Bordeaux, Haut Brion,” Gysin said.) Born in London during the First World War, which claimed his father, he lived in Canada, New York, where he was a ship welder and Broadway costume designer, Tangier, where he ran a restaurant called The 1001 Nights, whose house band was the Master Musicians of Joujouka, and Paris, where he died.

In life and art he was transient—he was Bowie’s world-roaming Lodger in the flesh. Gysin could never commit to one spouse: he was a poet, historian, mystic, painter, filmmaker, musician, inventor (of “the Dreamachine,” a trance-inducing flickering light-box that he thought would make his fortune and didn’t). He had a habit of leaving a city soon before something occurred—an exhibit, a new publisher—that could have “discovered” him.

For Bowie, Gysin was most obviously influential as being the creator of the cut-up method in 1959; a method that came about, Gysin said, when he tried to apply the techniques of painting and film (collage and montage) to the assembly of words, He started by slicing through a stack of newspapers and making poems out of the shreds. By the mid-Sixties, Bowie was cutting up his lyric sheets, throwing pieces in the air and seeing what came from picking them up; three decades later, he had custom-made software to do the equivalent. But Gysin also served a symbolic role for Bowie, as an image of an unrefined creativity. Gysin made being a dilettante into a noble calling. Life is a game, not a career, as he said.

He might’ve lived a much more traditional artistic life, but he was always outside of that, and that was very much to his advantage as an artist.

John Geiger, on Gysin.

“Hallo Spaceboy” is, among many other things, a eulogy to Gysin: a tribute to a force of motion that was stilled only by death. You’re so sleepy now…your silhouette is so stationary…Don’t you want to be free? Even if Bowie hadn’t consciously intended to reference Gysin (“If I fall, moondust will cover me” (a line heard in the Pet Shop Boys’ remix of “Spaceboy”) were rumored to be Gysin’s last words*), the latter’s ghost still possessed the song. The Pet Shop Boys remix used Gysin’s cut-up to rip a hole in the song, transforming it into a sequel to “Space Oddity,” much to Bowie’s initial dismay.

Unlike friends like Burroughs and rivals like André Breton (who had Gysin’s paintings yanked from a surrealist exhibit in 1935), Gysin left no definitive works; there was no Naked Lunch or Surrealist Manifestos to his name, only a series of pieces scattered across various mediums: scripts, sound poems, novels, calligraphic paintings, the Dreamachine. A body of work treasured by a few, and remaining fundamentally obscure. Gysin’s most public legacy was a method used by rock stars like Bowie and Mick Jagger to write pop lyrics. But Gysin had lived his entire life as a performance. Lacking commercial ambitions and any desire for a mass audience, Gysin was a free agent, a man who spent decades on this planet without having any sort of “proper” occupation (his stint as restauranteur was as domestic as he ever got); he was a figure who earned respect by keeping in flux.

On Outside, Bowie was trying to reconcile, as he’d done time and time before (see the Glass Spider tour), his ambition to be considered an avant-garde artist with his more prosaic reality: that he was a pop star who was still on a major label, and who was still mainly known for singing about Major Tom and dueting with Mick Jagger. So figures like Scott Walker and Gysin wound up in the sediment of Bowie’s art-rock album, as potent but discarded influences, especially in the last stages of recording Outside, when Bowie had scrapped his Leon song-montages in favor of a fresh run of hook-filled pop songs like “Spaceboy.” If he was burying Gysin, he’d do it to the sound of slamming drums.

gysburr

“Spaceboy” is a negative of “Moonage Daydream.” “Daydream” opens with Mick Ronson’s slammed power chords and Bowie’s solo vocal, a double-hook (“ALL-i-GAH-tor! BAM-BLAMMM!”) so captivating that the rest of the song is a homage to it. “Spaceboy” begins with 16 bars of suspense: a swirl of synthesizer loops, an ominous chopping loop mixed right, a distorted guitar line. There’s a sense that something’s coming to break this into pieces, a tornado glimpsed on the horizon, and thirty seconds in the hook finally arrives. Instead of the expected guitars, it’s a moving wall of percussion, a cannonade of electronic beats and crushing 4/4 drums undergirded by a low-mixed bassline and dirtied by static bursts of distorted guitar. It’s a sonic cancer at the heart of the song, perversely giving it strength.

The “Moonage Daydream” intro hook was glam in miniature: here, dream this: go! “Spaceboy” wasn’t open, but an imposition—the hook found you out, hunted you down, and all you could do was submit to it and bang your head. BAMBAMBAMBAMDUNNADUNNADUNNA (there’s a bit of “Detroit Rock City” in it). In the choruses, two distorted guitars spit and tear, shifting from a B to a G chord and back (that’s the main harmonic sequence of the song, which also moves to a brief A major progression in the bridges). When Bowie comes in for the first verse, “Spaceboy” shifts back to its initial state of dread. The beat’s out there, and it’s coming back. By the second verse, a muted strain of it pounds beneath Bowie’s vocal, triggered by “Spaceboy!”; before the second chorus, Bowie holds off the onslaught for a few bars, whispering “moondust” before the door is kicked in. Everything in the mix serves as a counter-rhythm: there are ping-ponged electric guitars, snapping riffs back and forth; later, there’s a mouse-chase across Mike Garson’s piano. A muttering Bowie curses across the spectrum, his inaudible syllables sounding like crash cymbals.

One starting point was Eno’s “Third Uncle” (esp. via Bauhaus); another was the Swiss industrial band the Young Gods, who were as much an influence on Outside as the more-hyped Trent Reznor. Particularly the Gods’ T.V. Sky (1992): “Skin Flowers,” for instance, with its buzz-swaths of guitar and its relentless beat, is an ur-“Spaceboy” (the hollered “OUTSIDE!” also might’ve attracted notice); see also the juxtaposition of guitar loops and percussion fills on “Dame Chance.” (And Bowie’s 20-minute Leon suites seem in part inspired by T.V. Sky‘s closer, a 20-minute song-churn called “Summer Eyes.”)

Conjured up in a handful of days in the studio, “Spaceboy” was a liberating track for Bowie, who rode its beat and reveled in the trash. This chaos is killing me! he screamed, sounding delighted to die, mocking his past selves with “do you like girls or boys? It’s confusing these days.” And some of the song was due to Reeves Gabrels, uncredited.

sapce

In mid-1994, a few months after the first Leon sessions, Gabrels returned to Switzerland to work on overdubs and new recordings with Bowie. No other musicians from the Leon sessions were around (including Eno) except for an occasional visit by Erdal Kizilcay. Towards the end of a month-long stay in Montreux, Gabrels played Bowie an “ambient” instrumental piece, which he then recorded as a demo. Bowie recited some lines over the track, including “moon dust,” which Gabrels said Bowie had found in a book of poems he was reading in the studio (he speculated the poet was John Giorno).

After [Bowie’s] vocal/spoken word tracks were done, I did a bunch of long sustain guitars thru a vocal formant patch from an Eventide 4000 signal processor (which makes it sound like a human voice) and I used a slight variation on the ava rava middle eastern scale,”** Gabrels wrote on his website. That was the end of it. On a subsequent visit to Montreux in late 1994, Gabrels asked about the track, provisionally called “Moondust,” and Bowie said “he didn’t feel there was anything special going on with that piece and that he’d pretty much forgotten about it.”

However, Bowie seemed to have remembered “Moondust” during the final Outside sessions in New York, in January 1995. On 17 January, using Carlos Alomar and the drummer Joey Baron, Bowie broke the song down to a handful of chords, reducing the original track “to almost nothing,” Eno recalled in his diary. “I wrote some lightning chords and spaces…and suddenly, miraculously, we had something.” Bowie quickly came up with the “hallo spaceboy” vocal hook, and the track was completed within days.

Bowie played “Hallo Spaceboy” for Gabrels when the latter turned up at the Hit Factory. “When I pointed out the similarities in harmonic motion [to “Moondust”] and the lyrics (etc.), there was zero interest in doing what the writers I continue to work with would have done, what I have done in this situation, and what I consider to be the fair, honest, and right thing,” Gabrels wrote. Having already fought Bowie and Eno to get co-credit for himself, Kizilcay and Sterling Campbell for Leon songs like “Hearts Filthy Lesson” and the segues, Gabrels felt he couldn’t win on a new front. “Because…I will always owe David a debt of thanks for dragging me into the music major leagues…I eventually dropped the subject.”

But a few years after an apparently sharp breakup with Bowie, Gabrels was ready to let it rip. “The track “Spaceboy” follows the chord changes of my original “ambient” track which was dismissed as just being “ambient” and not really a song or contributing to the existence of “Spaceboy” (which if it did contribute, writing credit should be shared). At its most basic level, [if] I hadn’t come up with the ambient track, that ball would would never have rolled itself into a song. I found it odd to have my original piece of music treated as though ambient music has no chord changes or melody and that people who write ambient music cannot copyright their songs to protect their ideas as it isn’t really writing music. (Someone should tell Eno.) What I really wonder about is the poet who wrote “Moondust”…his name isn’t in the writing credits either. But then again those are just words in a certain order, right?

Bowie has never commented on this claim, and to be fair we only have Gabrels’ side of the story, from ten years ago; Gabrels has never released “Moondust” for people to make their own comparisons. From Eno’s diary entry, it seems that the track was pretty heavily overhauled, from new guitar riffs to new chords, and one can see Bowie’s perspective: “Spaceboy” was a new song he had alchemized out of an unpromising ambient jam track. But this begs the question of who actually “authors” rock songs, as Bowie’s songwriting credits can seem arbitrary: Mick Ronson never got a single credit for songs that he obviously contributed riffs and melodies to; Dennis Davis and George Murray are credited for “Breaking Glass” but not “Stay,” and so on.

But God can be an ironist sometimes: Bowie’s “stolen” song was soon enough stolen from him.

boyspace

Writers don’t own their words. Since when do words belong to anybody? ‘Your very own words,’ indeed! And who are you?

Gysin, “Cut-Ups Self-Explained,” Brion Gysin Let the Mice In.

Neil Tennant had started as a music journalist, so he had an eye for a lead. When Outside was released, he saw an obvious interpretation of “Spaceboy” that its author apparently hadn’t considered, or had deliberately avoided. In none of the dozens of interviews Bowie gave to promote Outside did he say that “Spaceboy” was connected to “Space Oddity” and “Ashes to Ashes.” (He even directly denied the connection during a press conference: “I only used [the word] ‘space’—there’s nothing about it that’s even remotely like ‘Space Oddity,’ frankly.”] When the Pet Shop Boys offered to remix “Spaceboy,” Bowie quickly agreed, as he seemingly let anyone remix his songs. But when Tennant told Bowie he was going to sing new lyrics and would use “Space Oddity” to get them, Bowie was taken aback by Tennant’s “nerve.” He went into the studio with Tennant, allegedly to get the performance right, but one wonders if he was irked about it.

After all, Outside was supposed to be his fresh, pre-millennial record, crafted to speak to a new audience, and now here was Major Tom/Starman come back again. The revised “Spaceboy” threatened to convert the project into yet another spew of Baby Boomer nostalgia, to throw Bowie back into his past. What saved “Spaceboy” from being cheap audience-bait was Tennant’s use of cut-up. He broke the well-worn words of “Space Oddity” into strange, fresh alignments:

Ground to major bye-bye Tom
Dead the circuit countdown’s wrong
Planet Earth is control on?

Still, the remix shifted the song’s axis. Bowie had written off Major Tom on “Ashes to Ashes”: he’d drifted off into the inexplicable and was content to stay there, roll end credits. Now, with Tennant’s new verse in “Spaceboy”, Bowie had been cast as Major Tom again, against his will; he was a fly caught on wax paper. This chaos is killing me! now became the words of Major Tom, strung out in heaven, worn through with transcendence and longing for death. Bye bye love! No longer just Gysin, dying in Paris, but Bowie’s own legend, being exhumed only to be buried again.

All Bowie could do was play along. The remix was issued as Outside‘s third single and it nearly broke the top 10 in the UK—it was Bowie’s highest charting post-1995 until “Where Are We Now?” this year. In the two performances Bowie and the Pet Shop Boys gave of it, Bowie looked immaculate and ageless, thrashing about on stage, but he also looked trapped. Tennant calmly sang (or mimed) his interrogation, while Bowie struggled against a song that now seemed to confine him.

It was a fitting ending, or as fitting as you get these days. “Spaceboy,” one of the last great Bowie pop moments, never quite seemed his own property; it was fluid, a coalescing held together by a beat that seemed to invade it. Bowie spent the last decade of his performing life singing “Spaceboy” again and again, trying to get it back under his thumb, sometimes succeeding (using three drummers to beat the song into shape at his 50th birthday party), sometimes seeming as though he was covering it.

Recorded ca. January-February 1995, Hit Factory, NYC. Released, in its Pet Shop Boys form, as a single in February 1996 (BMG/RCA 74321 353847, #12 UK). A 12″ remix, the Lost in Space mix and the Double Click mix were included on a promo 12″ and later on the 2-CD Outside reissue. “Spaceboy” was played on seemingly every TV show in Europe, including Jools Holland (2 December 1995); Det Kommer Mera (Sweden) 19 January 1996; Taratata (France) 26 January 1996; Karel (Dutch) 29 January 1996, and a broadcast from the BBC Radio Theatre on 27 June 2000. A recording from the Phoenix Festival in 1996 was issued on a bonus CD single that came with the French edition of Earthling. “Spaceboy” was a regular in most of Bowie’s last decade of touring.

Sources: Back in No Time: The Brion Gysin Reader (ed. Jason Weiss); John Geiger, Nothing Is True–Everything Is Permitted (pretty much the only Gysin bio).

* Nicholas Pegg wrote without attribution that “if I fall, moondust will cover me” was rumored to be Gysin’s last words. I’ve found no other reference to this, via the Internet and by rummaging through the libraries of Smith College and Amherst College, so I’ll conclude this claim is false unless someone points me to a source that I’ve missed. Gysin did use “moondust” in his novel The Process (1969) (“a familiar indigo rag flutters out of the sand where I look for my guide to find him, too, buried in moondust.“) I’ve found no reference to a Giorno poem mentioning “moon dust” either. The line could just as well be Bowie’s.

** I think Gabrels meant the Ahava Rabbah, or the Phrygian dominant scale. Maybe not? Ava rava, anyone?

Top: Chloe Sevigny, Kids (Clark, 1995); Gysin, Burroughs and stone-faced ancestors (via BrionGysin.com); various Spaceboys.