Nothing To Be Desired

January 22, 2013

reality

Nothing To Be Desired.

So 2013 is the year where you scrap everything that you once concluded: the Year of Shattered Hypotheses. First, Mr. Bowie returns and spoils my grand narrative that would’ve had him retiring with “Little Fat Man.” Then, after spending nearly a week trying to get a handle on the confusing mess that is the Leon sessions, and writing my conclusions about sequencing, etc., on “I’d Rather Be Chrome,” I got to hear the actual Leon tape. (I’ll likely revise the “Chrome” and “We’ll Creep Together” posts soon to reflect this.)

The 70-minute Leon is the Rosetta Stone of this murky period in Bowie history: everything scattered around the Internet in fragments and under various assumed names all fits together in it. Leon, in what sounds like its finished state, was meant to be three movements: “Leon Takes Us Outside,” “I Am With Name” and “The Enemy Is Fragile.” It seems likely that Leon as a whole was the “operatic” piece of music that Reeves Gabrels once referred to. So a new theory, one likely to be discredited soon enough: Bowie decided (or conceded) to turn Outside into a single CD in 1995. While the more discrete songs recorded in the 1994 sessions, like “The Motel” and “Hearts Filthy Lesson,” easily made the transfer, it was difficult to extract pieces from the intricately-sequenced and dense Leon movements. Only a few of the (severely) edited segues and two songs survived.

Besides “I Am With Name,” the only officially-released piece of music from the Leon movements was the fragment “Nothing To Be Desired,” issued as a B-side of the US CD single of “The Hearts Filthy Lesson.” This was an extract from the “Enemy Is Fragile” suite, which I annotated in insane detail here.

The “Fragile” suite begins with Bowie in a character not heard on Outside—a “narrator” figure who mainly speaks in Bowie’s actual voice (I’m guessing this was DB playing the role Eno had assigned him, the “town crier” of the 21st Century). After appearances by Nathan Adler and his adversary, Ramona A. Stone, the narrator returns to tout the wonders of a CD-ROM (Bowie rolling the “r” like he was going for an elocution prize) that’s an interactive compilation of Wolof music. The narrator concludes his pitch with: The editorial apparatus of this CD-ROM leaves nothing to be desired.

All along, a snaking bassline has been playing beneath the narrator’s pitch and suddenly he gives way to it, savoring the sound of the last four words, chanting them like a mantra. He’s soon joined by a chorus that include his own distorted “Laughing Gnome” imp voice. They echo his “nothing to be desireds” and a subsequent chant—mind changing, change your MIND changing MIND changing. A piece of pompous ad copy from a CD-ROM pitch has become a religious invocation. The chants build, driven by Mike Garson’s pounded piano chords, the bass holding on a root note, Bowie bracing himself (“stand by! stand by!”) until the tension breaks with a simple drum fill. The singers repeat the phrases for another minute, Bowie sounding increasingly unhinged, until a fade links the sequence to the next spoken segue.

The B-side finishes the joke. On Leon, “nothing to be desired” transmuted from an empty phrase in a ridiculous advertisement into a tribal chant. In its official release, the phrase, torn loose from its original, now-forgotten function, became just an empty piece of language, just another dance floor hook. For the B-side, Bowie prefaced the Leon extract with a minute of high-mixed drums and Gabrels’ guitar that continued throughout the vocal section (it’s hard to determine whether Bowie rerecorded the backing track entirely or just layered in a set of new overdubs—the bassline seems to be different than the Leon original.)

Released without notice in 1995 and barely remembered in the near-two decades since, “Desired” is one of the few surviving pieces of the original Leon; it’s a strange orphan that Bowie dressed up and cast out into the world, without any letters of introduction.

Recorded May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and Westside Studios, London. Released as the B-side of the US “Hearts Filthy Lesson” CD single digipak (Virgin 7432 8 38518 2 9), and later included on the 2004 2-CD limited reissue of Outside.

Top: Janeane Garofalo, Winona Ryder and product placement, Reality Bites (Stiller, 1994).