Survive

November 1, 2013

Anloo wheat field

Survive.
Survive (Omikron sequence).
Survive (video).
Survive (instrumental).
Survive (Marius DeVries UK single mix).
Survive (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Survive (Top of the Pops 2, rehearsal, 1999). (& another rehearsal.)
Survive (Top of the Pops 2, 1999).
Survive (TFI Friday, 1999).
Survive (live, Net Aid, 1999).
Survive (Cosas Que Importan, 1999).
Survive (Nulle Parte Ailleurs, 1999.)
Survive (live, 1999, later on single).
Survive (Musique Plus, 1999).
Survive (Later With Jools Holland, 1999).
Survive (live, 1999).
Survive (Quelli Che Il Calcio,’ 1999).
Survive (Inte Bara Blix, 1999).
Survive (TVE Spain, 1999).
Survive (Bowie at the Beeb, 2000).
Survive (live, 2002).

The End

We did record an awful lot of stuff, and there really was every intention of going through it and putting out Part II and Part III. The second title was Contamination, and boy was that accurate. And it would have been nice to have somehow done it as a theatrical trilogy. I just don’t have the patience. I think Brian would have the patience.

Bowie, interview by Ken Scrudato, SOMA, July 2003.

For two years after the release of 1. Outside, Bowie kept promising its sequel albums would appear by the end of the millennium, in conjunction with a theatrical production commissioned by the Salzburg Festival, to be staged in Vienna in 1999 or 2000. There also would be a CD-ROM piece of the Outside puzzle, optimistically scheduled for 1996.

Interviewed by Ray Gun at the end of that year, Bowie said 2. Contamination (“hopefully that should be out by spring ’97“) would have “some bearing on the first one, but it’s completely different. It goes backwards and forwards between Indonesian pirates of the 17th and 18th centuries and today…it’s really becoming a peculiar piece of work.” There were at least 25 characters in the piece now: whether these included the likes of Nathan Adler and Ramona Stone was unclear, possibly even to its composer.

Life intervened. Brian Eno sold his house in Britain and relocated his family to St. Petersburg1, while Bowie spent much of 1997 touring Earthling. The more unfeasible the Outside project seemed, the grander Bowie’s plans for it became.

In an April 1997 interview on the Mr. Showbiz website, Bowie said he and Eno had “formulated the storyline and decided to do it ourselves with no other musicians and to not meet while we’re making it…we’ll send the tracks back and forth between St. Petersburg and wherever I am.” Contamination’s Internet arm was carrying much of the dramatic weight by now (“we’d like to bump up all kinds of stuff on the Internet, so you get lots of photographic references…it’s kind of a Ripley’s Believe It or Not premise.”) While the 17th Century pirates were still in the mix, the “narrative” now also included diseases (“Ebola, AIDS, that new tuberculosis“), hence the title. Trent Reznor and Goldie were rumored to have been roped into it.

And even when the century was done and nothing had come about, Bowie wouldn’t let Outside go. In a web-chat in late 1999, he said he and Eno had recorded “over 24 hours of material. Problem is finding the time to sift through.” In February 2000, he told BowieNet users that, yes, finally, this would be the year he “pieced together” Contamination. Instead he re-recorded some of his old Sixties songs.

thegrad

So in the end there was nothing: no CD-ROMs, no websites, no Robert Wilson-produced operas, no new Nathan Adler diaries, no new albums. Instead Bowie had spent the last years of the 20th Century trying his hand at seemingly everything else but Outside sequels: acting in films, hosting The Hunger, launching BowieNet, agreeing to BowieBanc, planning a Ziggy Stardust film/website/play, scoring the videogame Omikron: the Nomad Soul (see the past month’s entries).

No more Outside chapters may have been a blessing. 2. Contamination and 3. Afrikaans (a rumored but never confirmed title, likely a fan’s doing) could’ve been Bowie’s version of the Matrix sequels: more clues! more characters! more time-hopping! And smothering Outside‘s atmosphere in sub-Neal Stephenson exposition and garrulous mythology. When some fans distributed hoax sequences of 2. Contamination (“Ebola Jazz,” “Segue: The Mad Ramblings of Long Beard”) and even fake Nathan Adler diaries it was as inspired an end to the project as any Bowie could have offered.

Still, the slow collapse of the Outside trilogy left a hole in his ambitions. It’s arguable his frenetic activity in 1998-1999 was in part him looking for something, anything to replace his grand millennial folly. But the album he released in the waning months of the 20th Century was something far different from his and Eno’s projects. Its title could have been Inside.

hrs

Reeves Gabrels and I have written a lot in during the last few months and we might just record all these songs to see what will come out of it…We compose for the pleasure and our spectrum is wide, between purely electronic music and acoustic songs.

Bowie, Rock & Folk interview, 1998.

If ‘Hours’2 has a counterpart in the Bowie canon, it’s Diamond Dogs: both albums are salvage jobs, their tracks refugees from a set of other, mainly stillborn projects, assembled higgledy-piggledy yet somehow managing to have a unified tone.

‘Hours’ had a few tributaries. One was the aforementioned Outside sequels. If Bowie really had recorded a day’s worth of music with Eno for 2. Contamination, it’s possible that something from it—a chord sequence, a stray lyric or a top melody—wound up on ‘Hours.’3 David Buckley, who interviewed Reeves Gabrels and Mike Garson in 1998-1999 for his biography, recalled in 2011 that both had told him there was still a lot of material recorded that had never been used (whether this was the Leon suites from 1994 or newer Contamination tracks is unclear).

Then there was Reeves Gabrels’ upcoming solo album. Gabrels had taken one for the team in 1995 by promoting Outside instead of his own debut solo LP, The Sacred Squall of Now. The plan was for Gabrels to finally have a big-ticket release, with an LP of songs co-composed with Bowie. He and Bowie, working in Bowie’s house in Bermuda in late 1998, wrote what Bowie estimated variously as anywhere from 30 or 100 songs, some of which were intended for Gabrels, including “The Pretty Things Are Going to Hell,” “We All Go Through” and “Survive.”

Finally there was Omikron. Bowie and Gabrels also were writing pieces that had to serve two masters: the songs had to work as incidental music for a game sequence as well as on a Bowie or Gabrels album. The songs needed less abrasive guitar, more “ambient” synthesizer and steady basslines; they needed to be structurally loose, so that pieces (a bridge or a chorus, say) could repeat over and over again if a player got stuck on a particular screen.

surv

By now, Gabrels was becoming creatively frustrated. He felt there should have been a follow-up to Earthling, cut in early 1998, to be the Aladdin Sane to Earthling‘s Ziggy Stardust: an elaboration and expansion of a sound, honed by months on stage. “The music had evolved, the band was playing great, the window of opportunity was there,” he told Buckley. So all the time that he, Mark Plati and Bowie had spent sifting through live recordings for a rejected live album was wasted: why couldn’t they have gotten Gail Ann Dorsey and Zachary Alford into the studio and cut a trio record?

So when he went to Bermuda in autumn 1998, Gabrels hoped for another start, that this could be finally the album he and Bowie had thought of making a decade ago, before Tin Machine had come along. An open collaboration, ranging from electronic music to hard, avant-garde rock, with no record label interests considered. After all, Bowie had a website now: he could just distribute the tracks to his fans should Virgin get cold feet.

Yet Bowie had different aims. Beyond taking the needs of Omikron into consideration, he was in a more traditionalist frame of mind. He’d enjoyed a carnival phase in the mid-Nineties; now he was in a Lenten mood. “There was very little experimentation in the studio,” Bowie said. “A lot of it was just straightforward songwriting. I enjoy that; I still like writing that way.”

This new album would be his severance from his Nineties obscurantist period: to make it obvious, he had the cover of “Hours” play on Michelangelo’s Pietà, with his new, somber curator persona cradling the dying “rave uncle” of Earthling. Both videos for the album would set Bowie in surreal domestic situations, with muted colors and lighting; the actor looking his age for once.

Gabrels conceded. As the album, as it took shape, was becoming somber and introspective, he needed to dampen down the guitars, to be sure that he wasn’t undermining the songs. It’s a small irony that the one album for which Gabrels received full co-composition credit is the one on which he’s essentially muted on guitar. And Bowie in turn wanted his vocals not to sound mannered. “I wanted to approach them just like a bloke. To give them a feeling of: anybody could sing these songs. They’re not difficult.”

hurr

Once he’d assembled enough songs for his own album (and so claiming the lion’s share of them—sorry, Reeves), Bowie began working on a narrative voice. He described this as being a distillation of some of his friends who, at age 50, were regretting their lives. “I’ve watched them flounder a little over the last 10 years, when they’re reaching that stage where it’s very, very hard to start a new life,” he told Gil Kaufman. “Some of them are affected with resignation and some of them, a certain bitterness maybe…they found themselves in relationships that aren’t what they had expected to be in when they were younger.”

You could call this a bluff, the equivalent of the man who asks a doctor about an embarrassing rash “a friend” has contracted. Sure Bowie was, by all accounts, happily married and would soon be a father again. He was rich, established, world-famous. Not that these conditions will prevent depression and regret from striking. But he was also creatively exhausted. He had fought and fought, for years, to make his music new again, to risk making a fool of himself on stage. Now his latest spectacle had failed due, in part, to his own lack of commitment; perhaps he was left wondering what he even had left to say anymore.

That said, the voice that Bowie used on much of ‘Hours,’ a melancholy sad sack, does seem crafted, even affected. The vocals are restrained, the lyrics are more quotidian, with dull rhymes and shopworn images. Was this in character, or was Bowie papering over, in his interviews, a sharp decline in his own songwriting? Was he charging his generation with his own creative depletion?

I’ll argue that ‘Hours’ is a flawed experiment, a secret parody: it’s Bowie attempting to do a record “proper” for a man of his age and stature. It’s his aging Baby Boomer lament album, his “September Songs” for a generation (the title played on unforgiving time and a common bond: hours/ours). He’d listened to nothing but his old songs before he wrote this album, he claimed, but he’d also obviously listened to his aging peers. Because ‘Hours’ is riddled with ghosts of old songs, with strains of lost singers: he’s mocking them, answering them, humbled by them. It’s one of his hardest albums to grasp, because it can be dull and ordinary and can feel strained: it’s like watching a once-great track runner struggling to run a 5k race. The question, left to each listener, is whether this mood is intentional: if the diminished figure in these songs is a subtle mask or if it’s simply the only voice Bowie could muster.

singl

“Survive” was the first track to be released from the ‘Hours’ sessions. Its title wasn’t promising.

As I wrote in the “Heroes” entry, Greil Marcus around 1975 had noticed the growing popularity of the word “survivor,” in films, on TV chat shows, and especially rock music: “Soul Survivor,” Street Survivors, “Survival,” “I Will Survive.” It seemed to me to speak for everything empty, tawdry, and stupid about the seventies, to stand for every cheat, for every failure of nerve. “Survivor” had once meant someone who had endured an unspeakable horror; it became an aging person’s self-deprecating boast. “I will get by…I will survive,” Jerry Garcia had tootled in 1987 (he didn’t, but again, neither will any of us in the long run).

So a song in which a 52-year old man sings about surviving seems emblematic of this rot: a reduction of life to its greyest elements. It could have been a song about his failing digestion. What saves “Survive” is the sour, occasionally defiant sense of regret in it: the singer’s not regretting a path he didn’t take, but simply noting that there are no more paths left for him anymore. In one interview, Bowie said that “there was a time in my life where I was desperately in love with a girl—and I met her, as it happens, quite a number of years later. And boy, was the flame dead! ” So it’s tempting to speculate that the woman in “Survive” came from a retrieved memory of Hermione Farthingale, Bowie’s lost love, who he’d used to symbolize everything he’d left behind in the Sixties. But the woman in “Survive” is still abstract to the singer, a place-filler he uses to stand for something else he can’t quite explain: a loss of his own potential.

surv

There are a few Sixties shadows in the track: Mark Plati’s Mellotron, the Beatles playing clubs, “Time Is On My Side,” “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” (the guitar hook heard at the fade, of course referencing Bowie’s nicking of it for “Starman” too). But the song “Survive” answers, very obliquely, is Nick Drake’s “One of These Things First.

In Drake’s song, a young man sits and thumbs through possible lives: he’s like a boy watching soap bubbles floating in the air. “Could’ve been a sailor, could’ve been a cook.” He could have been reliable, steady; he chose not to be. He’s callous in how much he could hurt the person he’s speaking to. Could’ve been a real live lover, not the half-one that you got. “Could have been your friend,” he sings, attaching as much weight to that word as to his musings about being clocks and books. “A whole long lifetime/could have been the end.” Committing to someone would mean the end of his freedom, closing off all the other avenues that snake out beyond him. Drake wants to remain in the conditional perfect, in a happy state of possibility. He sings with graceful lightness, supported by Paul Harris’ piano, itself eager to break off into yet another line of thought, while Ed Carter’s bass is a squirrelly movement underground.

“Survive” turns up that singer again, finds him at the ebb of his life. No more mornings left for him. But he’s still committed to the what-could-have been, still bluntly denying reality, still wanting his space. “I should’ve kept you,” he mumbles. “I should’ve tried.” The verses seem to run out of breath, slouching into dull rhymes (“I should’ve been a wiser kind of guy“) and weary expiration phrases: “Iiii love you.” The choruses, feinting at a move to A major but winding up stuck back in the verse’s D major, struggle to voice the man’s few hopes. A descending bassline tugs him down to earth.

(Gabrels, who’d written much of the song’s music for his solo album, gets the best part in the play: the lead guitar, representing the noblest piece of the man who’s singing. Gabrels is the only bright color in the song: the little dancing phrase after “I miss you,” the counter-melody in the second chorus, the eight-bar solo that’s like a puff of hope uncorked from a bottle, the descending arpeggios that shadow the man’s growing ambivalence.)

He sees a woman across the floor somewhere, maybe at some class reunion. They could’ve been something once: they both know it, they both may not regret it. You’re the mistake I never made, he sings. She sees through him, as an old fraud, as someone who never settled for life in the hopes of finding something better. And he knows how she sees him, and that she’s right. But I’ll survive your naked eyes, as the song ends. There’s nothing but delusion, never was anything else but it (the song itself is a loop: opening and ending on the same Dadd9 chord, the two choruses bracketed by the two verses)4. The song ends with an older man’s sad defiance, which loses strength each time he says it, until he gives up and lets the song expire in his place.

Recorded April-early May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda, with overdubs at Looking Glass Studios and Chung King Studios, NYC. It was the first release from ‘Hours,’ issued on a promo giveaway with the 8-14 September 1999 issue of Les Inrockuptibles. Subsequently on ‘Hours’ and as a 2-CD single (Virgin 7243 8 96486 0 7, 7243 8 96487 0 6) released on 17 January 2000, which included Marius de Vries’ mix, the Walter Stern-directed video clip and a live performance of the song from the Elysée Montmartre, 14 October 1999. Performed on a host of TV and radio shows and played live in 1999, 2000 and 2002.

1: Eno told Mojo in May 1997 that he moved to Russia because “since London is now the hippest city in the world, I thought I’d get out for a bit…If you live in England and you finally scale the thorny path to celebrity, finally the critics decide, ‘Fuck me, he’s been around so long I guess we should leave him alone.’ You then find you get invited to do every stupid, pathetic thing going—you know, judge this competition, award this, and so on—and I just saw my life turning into a series of small events. I thought I’d go somewhere else where there aren’t any small events.”

2: Yeah, the official title of the album is ‘hours…’ I’ll refer to it simply as ‘Hours’ in all further references because the lower-case affectation irritates me and having to put in three ellipses every bloody time I mention the album would be a bother.

3: That said, the most obvious candidate for a Contamination leftover, the instrumental “Brilliant Adventure,” is confirmed by Bowie to have been written in Bermuda and was intended as part of the Omikron soundtrack.

4: Both verse and chorus open shuttling between tonic and flatted VII chords (so D to C in the verse, A to G in the chorus), darken midway through with a run of minor chords and each closes by setting up the opposing key (so the verse ends with a G that the A major opening of the chorus resolves; the chorus just sinks back to D).

Top: Thierry Gregorius, “Anloo wheat field, Holland, 1999”; Bowie receiving honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music, May 1999; ‘Hours’ cover photos (Tim Bret Day); still from “Survive” video (Walter Stern); “Survive” CD sleeve.

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I Have Not Been to Oxford Town

April 22, 2013

95staten

I Have Not Been to Oxford Town.
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (rehearsal, fragment, 1995).
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (first live performance, 1995).
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (live, 1995).
I Have Not Been to Oxford Town (live, 1996).

It began as “Trio,” a rhythm track that Brian Eno, Carlos Alomar and the drummer Joey Baron worked up at the Hit Factory on 17 January 1995, one of the last days of the Outside sessions. Waiting around for Bowie, they knocked a song together to kill time. This was a recurring theme: Tony Visconti and Mick Ronson, waiting for Bowie in Trident Studios during Man Who Sold the World; Alomar, Andy Newmark, Willie Weeks, David Sanborn and Mike Garson waiting in Sigma Sound during Young Americans. It’s likely a tactic, Bowie running his studio sessions like a psychology lab. Delay the appearance of the lead actor, let the supporting players work something out of his absence.

Two days later, Bowie heard “Trio” for the first time. He sat down, started writing, asked for another playback, said he’d need five tracks set aside for his vocals. As Eno wrote in his diary, “then he went into the vocal booth and sang the most obscure thing imaginable—long spaces, little incomplete lines. He unfolded the whole thing in reverse, keeping us in suspense for the main song. Within half an hour he’d substantially finished what may be the most infectious song we’ve ever written together, currently called ‘Toll the Bell.’

There was a simple G major harmonic structure to work with: the verses held on G, with a descending turnaround through F and A minor; the refrain just shifted between G and its IV chord, C major; the bridge finally introduced the dominant (V) chord, a D major. As per Eno’s account, Bowie seems to have sewed together a vocal out of rhythms (one likely starting point was using the F-Am turnaround to underpin the two-note backing vocal melody: “all’s…well“), auditioning meters, playing with vowel alignments and consonance: e.g., my attorney seems sincere, with the little internal rhyme of “ney” and “seem” and the four consecutive “ess” sounds. There’s a severity to his verse phrasings, with their short vowels and Bowie’s curt appraisal of each syllable, letting some pass, haranguing others (Baby Grace is the victimm). And it’s countered by the almost jovial lightness in the chorus, one long dancing line of melody, with its easy phrases and rich rhymes: take “toll the bell,” both a consonant rhyme and onomatopoeiac (& the tolling’s echoed by the “all’s well” hook two bars later).

The fact that Bowie came up with the lyric (and top melody?) in a half-hour is witness to his creative strength at the time. Working at a steady pace since Buddha of Suburbia, gaining the confidence and insight to abandon most of one idea (the Leon suites) in favor of, at the relatively last minute, new, improvised material, it’s as if Bowie had physically willed himself back into an earlier state of creativity. It couldn’t, and it didn’t, last for long. But it produced “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” which is a marvel, the best song Bowie wrote in the Nineties.

oxfrd

As a rhythm guitarist, I do my stuff knowing a lead guitarist will come in. So I stay away from certain frequencies, concentrate on making a sturdy frame.

Carlos Alomar, 1995.

It’s all just paint, right?

Nile Rodgers, on making recordings.

“Oxford Town” isn’t the end of Carlos Alomar’s work with Bowie: he would play on the subsequent Outside tour and he’ll turn up to take two last bows in the early 2000s. But “Oxford Town” is his finale, his last great accompaniment.

Reeves Gabrels is in the mix as well: he’s likely playing the distorted, seething line, mixed left, that lingers throughout the first verse and chorus like a bad conscience. Alomar’s first unmistakably heard* in the second pre-chorus, playing a little dancing line, mixed center, that jabs against the verse melody, and then, gathering confidence, he starts conniving against the beat in the main chorus. There’s the nervy arpeggios in the bridge and then, when the verse returns, Alomar stays on, riffing, converting Gabrels in the process (or is it another Alomar track? Whoever’s responsible, the distorted guitar stops sulking and begins dancing as well).

And the coda is a last duet, Bowie and arguably his finest collaborator. By the last forty seconds of the track, there are at least three Alomar guitar dubs, talking to each other, making filigrees around the sturdy, constant melody that Bowie sings. Alomar, either on his Parker Fly or, even more fitting, his classic Alembic Maverick, plays bright, hook-filled lines, mainly keeping to the top three strings. The last few seconds of “Oxford Town” are Alomar alone, a sideman having taken the spotlight by force, hooked into a riff that seems like it will never end until it drops dead.

dbb

There’s a ghost in “Oxford Town,” too. Bowie’s vocal echoes someone who he’d never acknowledged before: David Byrne (compare Bowie’s “lord, get me out of here” to Byrne’s phrasing on lines like “wasting precious time” in “Found a Job”).

Bowie and Byrne had kept to separate worlds, with Eno as their only nexus point (edit: “DJ” is allegedly Bowie imitating Byrne, as per a Talking Heads bio—see comments). But as Outside was supposed to be an American album, Leon Blank an alleged American suspect, this gave Bowie a way to use Byrne, particularly his vocal on “Once In a Lifetime,” as a thread in his backdrop. And Bowie and Byrne’s takes on America were fundamentally similar. Byrne was born in Scotland, grew up in Ontario before winding up in Maryland. For him, America would always be a foreign country, especially the vast heartland that he spied from airplanes or bus windows (“I wouldn’t live there if you paid me to,” he’d later sing.) This alienation gave him a way to appreciate “native” American artifacts as works of art: he transcribed game shows and acted them out, and in the late Seventies, he became fascinated by radio broadcasts of evangelical preachers.

Like “Oxford Town,” “Once in a Lifetime” had started as a rhythm track, anchored on Tina Weymouth’s alternating three-note bassline. What Bowie mainly took from “Lifetime” was Byrne’s patter in the verses, a chant-like phrasing Byrne himself had taken from evangelical radio**: You may find yourself! in another part of the world! Hectoring repetition, mainly keeping to one note (“you may find yourself”), balanced with elated, upward-tugging, rhyme-heavy phrases (“behind the wheel of a large automobile!“) You can hear Byrne in Bowie’s last verse, the repetition and rhythmic variations as”Leon” confesses/denies his crimes, sounding as if the words are ripping out of him. If I had not ripped the fabric…if I had not met Ramona…

There’s also a similarity in the two songs’ refrains, which offer a way out from the claustrophobia of their verses. In “Once in a Lifetime,” the exit’s through water: whether metaphor (the aridity of materialist America in the verse met by the communist bounty of water) or religion (Christian baptism, the Islamic ideal of submission to God) or just signalling the freer, more rhythmically dense music (Byrne was referencing Fela Kuti’s “Water Get No Enemy”) that the Heads had started playing.

In “Oxford Town,” the escape is through sound: tolling bells, collective hums, chants (and after all, only sound can escape a prison cell). But who’s in the cell, anyhow? Time for Leon Blank to speak.

six

Manager: I should like to know if anyone has ever heard of a character who gets right out of his part and perorates and speechifies as you do. Have you ever heard of a case? I haven’t.

Father: You have never met such a case, sir, because authors, as a rule, hide the labor of their creations…Imagine such a misfortune as I have described to you: to be born of an author’s fantasy, and be denied life by him; and then answer me if these characters left alive, and yet without life, weren’t right in doing what they did do and are doing now to persuade him to give them their stage life.

Luigi Pirandello, Six Characters in Search of an Author, Act III.

Outside was the first time “in 20 years” (or so he told Billboard) that Bowie had played characters. It was different from Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke, where he’d gone too deep into the characters, tailored their costumes too tightly to his “real” self, he said. On Outside, Bowie would play a more traditional narrator/author role.

But the characters couldn’t even attain the depth of cartoons. Those that had the most signs of life were those that had something akin to Bowie: the alternate-life suburban dreamer in Algeria Touchshriek and the all-conquering artistic ego in Ramona Stone. The nebulous narrator figures, the Artist and Minotaur, were just Bowie “doing the police in different voices.” The rest were press-ganged from movies that Bowie liked: Baby Grace was Bowie imitating David Lynch’s Laura Palmer, while Nathan Adler was a private-eye mingle: Rick Deckard, Philip Marlowe (more Elliott Gould than Bogart), Gary Oldman’s Jack Grimaldi.

This left Leon Blank, accused killer. Leon began as Bowie riffing on Tricky (with a bit of Jean-Michel Basquiat thrown in) but the character was reactive, passive, only seen through the eyes of others. Then Bowie, dashing out the lyric that became “Oxford Town,” finally gave Leon a monologue. The character took on life, began pushing back against its erstwhile creator.

“Oxford Town” is a condemned man’s song, some last words from a jailhouse, which had been a favorite scenario of Bowie’s youth (see “Bars of the County Jail” and “Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud”). The first verses find Leon pacing his cell, giving a sketch of his confinement: the food’s foul, the bedsheets are decent, his attorney means well, the priest seems willing to listen. The cold, slightly hectoring tone that Bowie uses makes Leon’s report seem like a man ticking off a list before he goes on a trip.

Then there’s a bridge, and Leon stops reading his lines and starts talking to his author:

This is your shadow on my wall…
This is what I could have been.

I have not been to Oxford Town isn’t just an alibi, it’s a criticism. Bowie failed to give his creations life, stuck them in ridiculous situations, gave them nothing to feed on. Leon kicks against the cheap story that he was folded into: If I had not met Ramona (who was Ramona anyhow?)….If I had not ripped the fabric. “Oxford Town” is a condemned man’s retort: yes, look at the blankets and the priest you gave me—they’re just cheap props. What did you really give me? Nothing. Here, this is what I could have been.

On stage in Paris a year later, Bowie gave one possible ending. Someone threw a white scarf on stage and Bowie, with his old mime’s instincts, played with the scarf, twining it around his neck, making a sling with it for his arm. Then he strung it into a noose, and, while singing the end choruses, aped hanging himself.

lb

[Outside] is only symbolically anguished. I think we are in for a very good time when we get to the next millennium.

Bowie, press conference, 1995.

There would be no sequel albums to Outside, no 2. Inside or 3. Afrikaans or A Night in Oxford Town. No more clues or red herrings or murder revelations or narratives. No grand concert with Eno to mark the millennium in Vienna. No more work (ever?) with Eno. Outside was, arguably, a failure. The album that came out of the implosion of the Leon project was hard to digest: even its die-hard fans may admit it’s overlong and oddly sequenced.

Still, perhaps this unwieldy apparatus, this compilation of role-playing games and Verbasized cut-up lyrics, of computer-generated portraits and vocoded voices, Minotaur paintings and barely-readable “diaries,” was what Bowie needed to finally work on a grand scale again. It’s as if a man who’d once been able to fly now needed some great jerry-rigged dirigible to get him off the ground. But he was still flying. If this was the price paid to get “Oxford Town” and “Hearts Filthy Lesson,“The Motel” and “Thru’ These Architects Eyes” and “Hallo Spaceboy,” well, it wasn’t that dear a price.

In Bowie’s promotional interviews for Outside, he kept saying that his millennial obsessions, the blood and mayhem and piercings and scarifications of the Nineties art world and pop culture, were a purging. We needed to burn the dross and relics of the old century to clear a way for the new one, which would be a calmer time. It didn’t quite turn out that way. The Nineties can now seem like a soap bubble, a playtime in which a world that could have gone anywhere scared itself with trifles and serial killer stories and “art murders.” Despite the murdered girl at the heart of it, Outside generally sounds optimistic, open. It was of its time: the Nineties sometimes felt like they were the gangway to the future we’d imagined, certainly not the future we got.

All’s well. A town crier’s words, after all. Let the old century die, move on. Bowie did: he went on tour to promote Outside, fell in love with his band, made his next record a tribute to them. Pay off Nathan Adler, write him out of the series. Toll the bell, strike the set, say goodbye, baby, and amen.

Recorded 17-20 January (poss. overdubs in February) 1995, Hit Factory, NYC. Covered as “I Have Not Been to Paradise” by Zoe Poledouris on the Starship Troopers soundtrack in 1996.

* I’m thinking that Alomar also plays the sliding hook that begins in the first verse, but it could’ve been Gabrels.

**Byrne was taping broadcasts of these preachers around 1979-1980 for what later became My Life in the Bush of Ghosts.

Top: Andreas Freund, “Staten Island Ferry,” 1995; Jean-Baptiste Mondino, back cover of David Byrne, 1994; Ian McKellen, Alison Prior, Margaret Drabble and John Fortune rehearse Six Characters in Search of an Author, ADC Theatre, Cambridge, 1959; “Oxford Town” lyrics (in theory); Bowie/Leon.


Thru’ These Architects Eyes

April 10, 2013

ny95

Thru’ These Architects Eyes.
Thru’ These Architects Eyes (live, 1995).

Effect before everything.

Philip Johnson.

1. Reeves Gabrels urged Bowie to scrap a revision of “Hearts Filthy Lesson” that had a lyric about English landscape painters. An undeterred Bowie got his art history piece onto Outside anyhow with “Thru’ These Architects Eyes,” where he name-checks the architects Philip Johnson and Richard Rogers.

Johnson was an American Modernist: the man who imported the International Style to the US in the Thirties, the man who built a glass house in a Connecticut suburb. The British Rogers savored interiors: take his Centre Pompidou or Lloyd’s Building, where the “guts” of the building, its pipes, elevators, gas lines and cables, form a barricade against the street. By the time Bowie wrote this song, Johnson and Rogers had entered the red giant phase of their careers, forever winning commissions, being flattered for worn-out designs, their buildings seemingly cropping up everywhere you looked in a Western city.

Bowie may have recognized a fellow traveler in Johnson—a brutal aesthete who was dedicated to his whims. Johnson’s biographer Franz Schulze wrote that Johnson’s “genius was that of a singularly gifted harlequin who forever changed the masks of style on his own work and conducted his personal relationships with comparable whimsicality.” Johnson had been in a Bowie song before, indirectly: recall the “Manhattoes” jumping from the roof of Johnson’s AT&T Building in “Goodbye Mr. Ed.” A building that was, according to architecture critic Carter Wiseman, “a unique fusion of aesthetic rebellion and corporate commerce… less architecture than it was logo, less work of art than hood ornament.”

2. Consider the title’s odd punctuation: the superfluous apostrophe after “thru,” the lack of apostrophe in the (apparently) possessive “architects.” The song’s title is a tiny piece of architecture. The apostrophe after “thru” ornaments that word. The lack of punctuation on “architects eyes” means to hook the eye, like a glass door that leads nowhere: you feel that “architects” should own “eyes,” but instead the two words just stand together alone, their “natural” relationship denied.

3. Bowie walks through a city, past great steel and glass towers designed by great architects for great multi-national companies. He feels like a stowaway. A city has great reserves to humble you or to drive you mad with inspiration. The character that Bowie sings here believes he’s a greater designer than either Rogers or Johnson, than any of the faceless men who had drafted the grid he walks along. Like Bowie’s old Starman, he’ll blow our minds if only we met him.

This is the Nineties. Capitalism has won out, history is over: all that’s left is a long revel. We’re living in the golden age, the golden age, as the song begins [edit: or it’s digging for gold and it’s the goal…”]. There’s so much galling promise lying around. The singer’s working in a job he hates but he doesn’t have the guts to quit. His cowardice makes him boil with envy: These summer scumholes/This goddamned starving life. The song is bled through with resentment. It has the clammy taste of insignificance; it’s a man cursing while he walks in the shadow of Johnson’s Lipstick Building (which housed Bernie Madoff’s office), upon seeing Rogers’ Millennium Dome blight his view of the South Bank.

4. What city is he walking in? If you take the lyric literally, you’ll need a Johnson and a Rogers within eyeshot of each other. So it’s not New York, where there are no Rogers buildings, nor London, where there are no Johnsons (one guess is that it’s Madrid, where you could look out from Johnson’s Puerta de Europa towers and spy Rogers’ terminal at the Barajas Airport). Also, Bowie is “stomping along on this great Philip Johnson,” but Johnson never designed a bridge or a walkway. Perhaps Bowie’s gone King Kong, swaying with menace atop a skyscraper.

rr

5. “Richard Rogers” is not the architect, but the composer. The creator of Oklahoma! and Carousel is Bowie’s ally against Johnson, as “Architects” concerns Bowie, songwriter, fitfully comparing his mental landscapes, the Hunger Cities and Suffragette Cities, the Crack Cities and Oxford Towns of his own imaginings, to the concrete (a word that Bowie puns on later in the song) realizations of mere architects.

Bowie, the architect who took his cities on tour with him. This goddamned starving life: the life of an artist, insatiable, constantly having to feed on the word and to spew out new ones.

6. “Architects Eyes,” along with “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” is the implosion of the Outside storyline, where the anti-narrative consumes itself. Everything breaks down. See the stagehands flailing, trying to hold up the collapsing backdrops, while the cast walks off in disgust. Even the prompter’s booth is empty. “Oxford Town,” as we’ll see, is a character’s rebuttal. “Architects” is an author’s requiem for his failed work, of which he’s still defiantly proud. Bowie is like Buster Keaton in One Week, staring at the crazed house that he built by trusting to his wayward sense of direction. He thinks it’s beautiful.

7. If Bowie is the most Gnostic of rock musicians; this is one of his most Gnostic songs (see “Station to Station” for another one). A core Christian Gnostic heresy, to boil it down to a sentence, is that the world we live in was not created by God, but by a lesser being—that man is a fallen god himself, that gnosis (literally “knowledge”) will reveal this condition. This is the underground stream that fed the 20th Century. Bowie came to it through Buddhism and his obsession with Aleister Crowley. The unlocking of the self, the knowledge that we are not what we are, is the key that Bowie played in since he began writing songs, his changing costumes merely outward manifestations of this. It’s the promise he’s always offered his fans. But he was always aware of the darker implications of this promise: how the search for God within oneself can lead to the fascist will to power, the bewitching cult of mass celebrity, the Thatcherite liberation from “society” in favor of the “socialism of the self.”

Philip Johnson, who built great glass towers for capitalists to play in, had a long infatuation with fascism in his youth. He went to a Nazi rally in Potsdam and got turned on (“all those blond boys in black leather,” he later recalled). He wrote an admiring article on “Architecture and the Third Reich” in 1933 and even once the war had begun in 1939, he was still writing pro-Hitler articles for American magazines: “Hitler’s ‘racism’ is a perfectly simple though far-reaching idea. It is the myth of ‘we, the best,’ which we find, more or less fully developed, in all vigorous cultures.”

We, the best. Who else is an Architect? Ask St. Thomas Aquinas: “God, Who is the first principle of all things, may be compared to things created as the architect is to things designed.” But in Bowie’s song this is a lesser god, a poor architect. A bungler, a god who left tectonic plates to crack against each other, who condemned vast swathes of the globe to ice and desert. The steaming caves, the rocks and the sand. Note the shoddy workmanship.

pjba

8. There’s an old legend in which an architect has his eyes gouged out upon finishing his work. It happened to the designer of the Strasbourg astronomical clock, they say. Or the designer of Prague’s astronomical clock, who had his eyes ripped out upon the cathedral’s unveiling. Ivan the Terrible used a poker to put out the eyes of the man who built St. Basil’s Cathedral. None of these stories seem to be true, but they served our purpose. The designer of something beautiful deserves to be maimed for it, to be denied the chance to build something colossal for another. There’s a sadistic pleasure in knowing that a maker will never see his creation again.

9. What city is this? The man walks alone through it, barely visible when seen beneath the great structures that some other, grander figure designed. He’s estranged from a shoddy creation, which houses the strong at the expense of the weak. Is it a city he made? Is he planning another one? Mind your eyes.

All the majesty of a city landscape
All the soaring days in our lives
All the concrete dreams in my mind’s eye
All the joy I see
Thru’ these architects eyes

There’s contempt and anger in how Bowie sings these lines, a man screaming that everything he sees, even the very filaments of his dreams, have been wrought by some other power, who he resents (see Dylan’s “Not Dark Yet”: “I was born here and I’ll die here—against my will“). Bowie’s voice sounds strained in the chorus, it’s a muscular push against the song’s harmonic movement, the track’s busy arrangement of guitars and synthesizers. But there’s also pride and grandeur in his phrasing, the way he seems entranced with the bounding melody he’s written: it’s a songwriter listening to the final run-through, the happy end of a weary task.

“Architects” hangs between the bright youth of A major (the verses) and the weariness of B minor (the bridges), clashing the two keys in the chorus (the choruses closes in A major, but it’s a tentative victory). The weave of guitar tracks is a secret Tin Machine reunion—Kevin Armstrong and Gabrels, battling each other one last time. Mike Garson closes the show, ending his solo with a decelerando three-note figure that, if it wasn’t for the fade, sounds as if it would’ve slowed to an utter crawl, each note sounded alone, not linked by any melody, like the “architects eyes” of the song’s title.

10. Is there concrete all around, or is it in my head?

Recorded possibly late 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and January-February 1995, at the Hit Factory, NYC. Only performed during the Outside tour in 1995-1996.

Top to bottom: Pedro Ramos, “MOMA, New York, November 1995.”; Richard Rogers, Channel 4 Headquarters, London (1994); Philip Johnson, Chapel of St. Basil, Houston (1992).


No Control

April 8, 2013

95berlin

No Control.

“No Control” came together quickly, at the tail end of the last Outside sessions in New York: it was possibly the last track completed for the album. In his diary, Eno said much of the track was done in an hour, including a Bowie vocal that left him in awe: “Watching him tune it to just the right pitch of sincerity and parody was one of the most fascinating things I’ve ever seen in a studio.”

Bowie starts with an octave-doubled vocal for the verses; it’s a warning to a collective “you” from someone already condemned, the melody confined to a handful of notes and tethered to the song’s basic harmonic progression (A major moving to its flattened VII chord, G, on “deranged“). He shifts to a wider-ranging, ascending melody in the bridge, with a loftiness in his now-single-tracked intonation (“If I could control…tomorrow’s haze“), over the same progression in G major (a move to F on “darkened shore“).

But in the second bridge, Bowie introduces what Eno had noticed him fine-tuning: a blend of camp and “realism.” You’ve gotta have a scheme, You’ve gotta have a plan! It’s as if a minor character from Oklahoma! has turned up in Oxford Town, trying to impart some homespun common sense (is he exhorting the likes of Leon Blank or Ramona Stone to plan their murders more thoroughly?). Repeating this move in the final bridge, which extends into the coda, Bowie concludes in a run where he scrapes out every vowel he comes across: “I caaan’t be-lieeeve…I’ve noo con-trool…it’s all de-raaaaaanged, DE-raaaaaanged.”

This was an old Bowie trick, going back to “I’m Not Losing Sleep” and “London Boys”: setting up a lyrical scenario (often a “street” scene) and then pulling back to reveal the stage lights and scrim, ending with a Judy Garland moment in the coda. (Garland’s version of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” an interpretation of which Bowie used to close sets in 1966, was the godmother of all of this.) The arrangement of “No Control” at times parallels Bowie’s vocal strategy—the purling synthesizers in the intro and verse are disrupted by Reeves Gabrels’ distorted, singing guitar and a squalling keyboard that crops up in the bridge, eats into the following verse and finally gets an eight-bar solo. Bowie’s move to “Broadway” vocalese in the second bridge comes during a feeling of dislocation in the music, as the harmonic “pad” on keyboard vanishes, leaving only Carlos Alomar’s rhythm guitar to tack things down.

The closing “I’m deranged” line suggests that “No Control” came out of that slightly-older composition. As with his other last-minute songs for Outside, Bowie sharpened his writing by ditching his Verbasiser cut-up lyric generator and, in most cases, his art-murder “narrative.” Instead he trusted his instincts, free-associating lyrics, even at times in the vocal booth: lines like “stay away from the future” or “don’t tell God your plans” have the aphoristic oddness of the best of his Seventies songs. “No Control” is one of the Bowie tracks that sum up his career in miniature (which is also to say if you hate Bowie, it will remind you why). But it got lost in the over-heaped platter that is Outside, Bowie never played the song live, and “No Control” became a footnote.

Recorded 20 January-February 1995. An instrumental mix appeared on a Dutch promo CD in 1998.

Top: Ted Sherarts, “March 29, 1995, Berlin.”


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.


I’m Deranged

March 26, 2013

epiphany

I’m Deranged.
I’m Deranged (alternate mix, unreleased).
I’m Deranged (edit, Lost Highway soundtrack.)
I’m Deranged (alternate edit, Lost Highway).
I’m Deranged (rehearsal, 1995).
I’m Deranged (first live performance, 1995).
I’m Deranged (“jungle” version, live, 1997).

But if those walls could talk! [The inmates’] whole process and how they instinctively jumped from symbol to symbol in their narratives and things. One man is called the Angel Man—and in fact he turns up in one of the songs in the end—he believed he was an angel and said [German Angel Man voice], “I was exactly who I was up until the 5th of February, 1948, and then I became an angel…it was just after lunch.” And from that point, he believed that his old person disappeared and his angel took over him. He was totally reborn at that moment.

Bowie, interview with Moon Zappa, Ray Gun, 1995.

Another casualty of Outside‘s sequencing was “I’m Deranged,” the sixteenth of nineteen tracks and which, to the exhausted ear, seemed a lengthy retread of earlier songs: it had another cracked Mike Garson piano solo, another set of Brian Eno’s Nerve Net-vintage synth and drum loops, yet another Bowie salmagundi of a lyric with shadows of violence and (overtly here) insanity.

Inspired by his and Eno’s trip to the Gugging Psychiatric Clinic in 1994 (from which Bowie took the image of the “Angel Man,” see above), Bowie chopped up a provisional lyric via his Verbasizer computer program, then crafted a run of lines that followed eddies of thought and made shotgun marriages of vowel sounds (“be real” becomes “before we reel”; “blonde” quickly summons “beyond”). The lyric’s perspective isn’t that of a madman as much as someone with romantic hopes of growing mad, with an undercurrent of masochism (“I’d start to believe…if I were to bleed,” Bowie sings, gently extending his long Es) and a few phrases suggesting that Bowie had been reading John Rechy again (“cruise me baby,” “the fist of love”).

He later assigned “I’m Deranged” to his Artist/Minotaur figure (see “Wishful Beginnings”) but the conceit was wearing thin by this point, and any attempt to shoehorn “Deranged” into the “Nathan Adler” storyline would devote far more time than its author ever did. Its allegiances are with two other tracks on the record—the title song, for which “Deranged” seems a counterpart, inspired by the same Gugging visit and suggesting sensory derangement and “outsider” art; and “No Control,” with which “Deranged” shares a lyrical and textural mood.

Built over a repeated four-chord progression in F minor,* “Deranged” seems mainly Eno’s work, though one ancestor was Bowie and Nile Rodgers’ “Real Cool World” (there’s also an echo of “Billie Jean” in its opening four-note synth hook), and there’s a tinniness at times to the mix: take the anemic drum machine fill at 3:31, beats seemingly generated by a Sega Genesis. Garson’s two piano interludes also lack surprise; it’s as if Eno had triggered a sampler to play “Off-Kilter Garson Solo in F Minor” at various cue marks. There apparently were some brutal revisions: Reeves Gabrels said he worked for days on “serious orchestrated guitar stuff” for “Deranged” that was eventually scrapped, while Carlos Alomar recalled a three-part harmony track that also got the axe.

Its best element is Bowie’s vocal: while there’s a somber precision to his opening lines, in the second verse, Bowie defaces his melody, weighing and sounding each word as if he can’t recall how it’s pronounced, getting mired in each syllable, building up to the last repeats of “I’m deraaaanged,” where he bloats and strangles the latter word.

The track’s harmonic stasis and ominous mood better suited the sequence David Lynch used it for on Lost Highway—scoring a driver’s-eye shot of a sped-up stream of highway center lines, a loop of ceaseless, violent motion. “Deranged” also improved in concert, once the song was prised loose from its album mix and given fresh, bloody life by the Outside and Earthling tour bands.

Recorded ca. January-February 1995, Hit Factory, NYC. A remixed and edited (2:37) version appeared on the Lost Highway OST, released 18 February 1997 (a longer edit was used for the end credits).

* The progression seems to be i-II7-v-III-i (Fm-G7-Cm-A flat-Fm), with the major chords staggering the progress of F minor to its dominant, C minor, and back home again.

Top: Ted Barron, “Epiphany,” Brooklyn, 1995.


The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)

March 21, 2013

hell

The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (alternate mix).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (rehearsal, 1995).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (The White Room, 1995).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (Taratata, 1995).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (Karel, 1996).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (live, 1996).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (live, 50th Birthday Concert, 1997).
The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (live, 1997).

Given one of the most ungainly titles in the Bowie catalog, “The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)” also got a tough sequencing—the only song on Outside to be bracketed between character segues (“Algeria Touchshriek” and “I Am With Name”). So “Voyeur” can often be overlooked, especially by those wearied of the album by track 11, as it can seem superfluous, tilling in the same grim field as “The Motel,” “Small Plot of Land” and “Wishful Beginnings.

“Voyeur,” which Bowie wrote with Brian Eno and apparently cut in the latter Outside sessions, is the last of the Scott Walker-haunted pieces on the record (see the High Scott phrasing of “as the sooohber Philistine“) and it’s the last song in this survey which could have fit into the original Leon. That said, “Voyeur” also feels transitional, open. With its subtle devotion to rhythm (see Joey Baron’s tom fills, holding ground against buzzing insurgencies of electronic percussion) and the density and flash of its production—it has the feel of being a few Eno loops that flowered into something colossal—“Voyeur” points towards Earthling as much as “Hallo Spaceboy” does.

Said to be the perspective of Bowie’s nebulous Artist/Minotaur figure (see “Wishful Beginnings”), the lyric references various Bowie hobbyhorses of the time: body art, scarification, possibly consensual torture (“the screw….is a tightening atrocity…the research has pierced all extremes of my sex“). The chorus hook, “turn and turn again,” is a pre-millennial blues, suggesting that all this angst and bloody tribalism is just a reiteration, weak echoes of patterns from centuries before. The chorus line’s also a Dylan call-back (see “Percy’s Song”) while the song’s last line, “call it a day,” sings back to the coda of “Bewlay Brothers.”

As a performance it’s a group devotion to sudden movements–the “O Superman” vocal loops, Bowie’s stage magician phrasing in the first verses, Mike Garson’s inflictions on the treble keys of his piano, a propulsive bassline by Erdal Kizilcay and the song’s climactic, jarring key change, followed by a new, eerie Bowie top melody and the sudden incursion of Reeves Gabrels, whose guitar first obscures [edit: his own] twin-tracked arpeggios and then lays the track to waste over its closing minute. It’s the sonic parallel to an implied brutality in the title: Harry Truman’s declaration to Japan, in July 1945, that the alternative to its unconditional surrender “is prompt and utter destruction.” The A-bombs fell two weeks later.

Recorded ca. January-February 1995, Hit Factory, NYC. Bowie enjoyed playing “Voyeur” live, and many of its recorded performances are the match of the studio take. Performed on the Outside tour, The White Room (Channel 4) on 14 December 1995, Taratata (France) on 26 January 1996 (but possibly recorded on 10 December 1995), Karel (Dutch TV) on 29 January 1996 and during the Earthling tour, including Bowie’s 50th Anniversary concert. A live version from Rio, 2 November 1997, is on liveandwell.com.

Top: Dr. Gull makes a house call, Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, From Hell (Vol. 7, April 1995).


We Prick You

March 18, 2013

b&B

We Prick You.
We Prick You (alternate mix, unfinished vocal).
We Prick You (rehearsal, 1995).
We Prick You (first live performance, 1995).
We Prick You (live, 1995).
We Prick You (live, Loreley Festival, 1996).

Having revived Tin Machine for the title song of Outside, Bowie perhaps had the Machine on his mind for “We Prick You,” his hostile takeover of an Eno drum track. With a refrain that originally went “we fuck you we fuck you we fuck you” and lines like “dripping on the end of a gun,” it easily could’ve been a crass, wearisome track, in line with the Machine at its most tasteless. Instead “We Prick You” was punchy, catchy and strange, another in a set of songs on Outside that found Bowie managing to refine his work from the past decade: Outside can seem like the music Bowie thought he was making in 1987 or 1989, a better realization of his ambitions.

Eno provided the drum ‘n’ bass-lite loops and the various synth colors, like the “marimba” fills that wink in and out and the main four-note synth riff that repeats throughout, and which slightly distorts towards the close (the track was originally called “Robot Punk”). But he was also heard in Bowie’s array of bizarre backing vocals, some of which sound like zombified Eton toffs, and which could all hail from the funny-voice bestiary of Eno’s “Dead Finks Don’t Talk.”* Bowie had even wanted to sample Camille Pagila for the “you show respect, even if you disagree” tag, but wound up doing it himself via varispeed (Bowie kept trying Paglia’s office, but she thought it was a joke and never called him back). On stage Bowie responded to this voice as if it was an officious God, talking back and shaking his head.

“We Prick You” moves from spare beginnings (a bassline over two drum loops, mixed far left and right, that’s joined, in eight-bar increments, by a drum machine and two main keyboard tracks) to a chorus that boasts one of the finest latter-day Carlos Alomar guitar riffs, a piece of barbed funk that calls back to the Miracles’ “Love Machine.” Alomar was just one hook in a track devoted to them—the “I’m Not in Love“-esque loops of endless “ooohs” high in the mix in later verses, the goonish counter-melodies (“shoes, shoes, little white shoes“), Bowie’s righteously sung “TELL the TRUTH! TELL the TRUTH!,” and the title line, repeated thrice like an anathema, and which is occasionally pummeled by snare drum fills.

The lyric has a similar density, working as: a blunt sex joke; a more subtle sex joke (“wanna come quick, then die”) playing on the phrase “little death” as orgasm; a feminist statement (the chorus could be Woman putting Man on trial, the first lines yelled by the prosecutor, the title line being the defendant’s confession); the trial of Leon Blank in Bowie’s anti-narrative; an occult reference (the alchemical symbol of Christ being pierced with a spear); and the idea of sex as a form of bodily mutilation, a variation of Ron Athey’s 4 Scenes in a Harsh Life, where Athey had stuck needles into his arms and scalp during his performance. A collection and implosion of ideas and sounds, signifying nothing and seemingly everything, “We Prick You” is Bowie at his purest.

Recorded ca. January-February 1995, Hit Factory, NYC. In 2012, another mix of “We Prick You” surfaced (see above) with some unfinished Bowie vocals; it was possibly an outtake from the Hit Factory sessions. Played only during the Outside tour.

* One of the voices on “Dead Finks” is Eno’s dead-on parody of Bryan Ferry.

Top: Ambitious man, in search of steady employment, consults with established power couple at the Q Awards, 1995. (Jarvis Cocker presented the “Q Inspiration Award” to Bowie and Eno that night.)


Outside

March 14, 2013

katmandu

Now (Tin Machine, live, 1989).
Outside.
Outside (first live performance, 1995).
Outside (live, 1995).
Outside (live, Loreley, 1996).
Outside (live, Gail Ann Dorsey vocal, 1997).

Basically I haven’t liked a lot of music I’ve been doing in the past few years. I forgot that I’m not a musician and never have been. I’ve always wanted to be a film director.” So Bowie told the 17 year-old Cameron Crowe, during an interview in Los Angeles in May 1975. While much of what Bowie said to Crowe was cocaine-fueled gibberish, the baiting of a young, credulous journalist, this small self-insight explains in part what happened to a record that Bowie made two decades later.

If you consider Outside as an art film in the guise of an album, then the revisions Bowie made to the project in early 1995—essentially “normalizing” the record with a set of new, catchier songs that had little, if anything, to do with his original art-murder-anti-narrative—were the equivalent of a reshoot, recasting players and cutting a new edit. It’s as though Bowie had been his own test audience, and had found the material lacking after a poor screening. And sure, he was looking for a label to distribute the album, which would be an easier sell if it was a collection of “David Bowie songs with weird spoken bits” rather than 20-minute collages of song-slivers and weird spoken bits.

So, back to work. One of Bowie’s first moves was to reclaim a lost Tin Machine song, “Now,” which Bowie had co-written with the Machine’s fifth member, the guitarist Kevin Armstrong.* “Now” was played only twice during the Machine’s brief 1989 tour, and it’s unknown whether the band cut a version of song in the studio for either of their records (no takes are circulating).

“Now” itself revised the past: it developed out of Bowie’s reworking of “Look Back in Anger” in 1988, his first collaboration with Reeves Gabrels.** “Now,” in its live performances, began and closed with the pummeling guitar maelstrom from the revised “Anger.” Midway through, the song downshifted into a set of moody eight-bar verses and bridges, built on an ascending four-note bass hook. One reason “Now” didn’t make the grade, apparently, was that Bowie wasn’t happy with some of the verses he’d written (he apologized to the crowd on the song’s debut): “Ah! I need your love! Talk about love!” was a bit too Sammy Hagar for his liking.

But Bowie had a habit of keeping his potentially strong songs on retainer, holding back on finishing the pieces until he felt the mood was right (most notably “Bring Me the Disco King,” a song that he kicked around for nearly a decade). So perhaps rather than waste “Now” as an album track on Tin Machine II, he felt it was meant for grander things. And so it was: Bowie turned “Now” into the title song/overture/prologue to his art rock concept record.

While there’s a domesticated version of the “Look Back in Anger” intro as a lead-in, “Outside” itself is fairly muted, reserved—Bowie holds off on moving to his high register until the second bridge, and doesn’t use his octave double-tracking until the third verse. (On stage, he usually sang the first verses and bridges seated, then rose to his feet for the climactic section.) The track’s harmonic base is two “horn” lines, mixed left and right (they seem to be synthesizers, though it’s possible Bowie’s playing baritone saxophone on the right-mixed track), that parallel the ascending bassline, and what sounds like Carlos Alomar playing arpeggios on acoustic guitar—Gabrels comes in for the last two bridges, first shadowing the ascending horn/bassline, then soloing off of it. And “Outside” is driven by a tremendous performance by Joey Baron (possibly Sterling Campbell) on drums: the subtle shift in the drum pattern that triggers the moves to the bridges, or the machine-gun tom fills at 2:38. Along with the various fills, sweeteners and oddities—a tambourine in the first verse, chimes and congas in the second, Eno squiggles throughout—there’s a guitar solo that’s minimalist by Gabrels standards.

A line in “Now” about “going to the outskirts of town” possibly suggested the title change, but Bowie also had been talking up the merits of “outsider” art to interviewers, and there are a few lines in his revised lyric that call back to his and Eno’s trip to Gugging Asylum (“the crazed in the hot zone“). Meant as a curtain-raiser for the 17 tracks to come, “Outside” serves well enough as the album’s master of ceremonies. But it was also a statement of purpose for Bowie. After a decade of disappointments, bafflements and false starts, “Outside” was a public bid for attention, Bowie promising that this record was something new, that it was committed to the present:Now….not tomorrow…It happens today. In a rock culture so often devoted to nostalgia and past glories, it remains a worthy, if often ignored, demand.

“Now” debuted at the Machine’s 29 June 1989 show in the National Ballroom, Kilburn, and it opened the band’s set at St. George’s Hall, Bradford, UK, on 2 July 1989. These remain its only circulating performances. “Outside” was recorded ca. January-February 1995 at the Hit Factory, NYC. Bowie usually had Gail Ann Dorsey sing lead on it during the Earthling tour.

* Oddly enough, while Armstrong played on Outside (he’s credited for “Thru These Architects Eyes”), he apparently didn’t play on his own song, at least according to the credits and the bios.

** “Anger” was one of the few “classic” songs that Bowie played on the Outside tour.

Top: Takahiro Fujita, “Kathmandu, 1995.”


Get Real

March 11, 2013

grandma

Get Real.

“Get Real” was an out-of-nowhere attempt to revisit Never Let Me Down, an album that Bowie had said he wanted to re-record one day. It’s as though Bowie was toying with previous incarnations of his “commercial” sound during his revisions of Outside in New York in early 1995. “Get Real” alternates a conversational verse/chorus, punctuated throughout by the double-tracked and stereo-panned title hook, with a moodier bridge that has a trace of New Order’s “True Faith” (“I walk the streets not expecting morning sun“).

While the beat and the guitars (it’s a Carlos Alomar-heavy track, especially the arpeggiated line mixed low in the right channel) call back to Bowie’s late unlamented Eighties, the acerbic, spare verse lyric and the chipper melancholy of the bridges suggest his turn-of-the-century albums. An odd, transitional piece that had nowhere to go on Outside, “Get Real” slipped out as a CD single bonus track later in 1995.

Recorded, most likely, at the the Hit Factory, NYC, January-February 1995. First released as a bonus track on the Japanese version of Outside, and on the UK CD single “Strangers When We Meet” (RCA/BMG 74321 32940 2). Also included on the 2004 reissue of Outside.

Top: Heli Lehtonen, “Grandpa and Grandma Working in the Field,” Sweden, 1995.