Slow Burn

September 8, 2014

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Slow Burn.
Slow Burn (Top of the Pops, 2002).
Slow Burn (The Today Show, 2002).
Slow Burn (Late Show With David Letterman, 2002).
Slow Burn (A&E Live by Request, 2002).
Slow Burn (Late Night with Conan O’Brien, 2002).
Slow Burn (VMC, 2002).
Slow Burn (live, 2002).

Anticipating the end of the world is humanity’s oldest pastime…Wars are never cured, they just go into remission for a few years. The End is what we want, so I’m afraid the End is what we’re damn well going to get. There. Set that to music.

David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas.

“Slow Burn” was Heathen‘s lead-off single. Well, it was in Japan, Europe and the US. Not in Britain, which by 2002 was the only reliable country for a Bowie chart placing. (He’d ceased troubling the US charts in the mid-Nineties: “Slow Burn” proved no exception). Scheduled for a July 2002 UK release, “Slow Burn” never appeared. There was no British single released until September, when “Everyone Says ‘Hi‘” finally arrived to barely break the UK Top 20. Another curious thing was that Bowie quickly stopped performing “Slow Burn” live. He sang it only twice, its last performance at the Meltdown Festival in June.

His label had decided to pull “Slow Burn” from the UK (Bowie had diligently sung “Slow Burn” on seemingly every American talk show in June, and had taped a session to air on Top of the Pops), but its disappearance from Bowie’s live sets as well suggests perhaps a collective realization that “Slow Burn” wasn’t going to do the business. Was it too familiar-sounding, coming off as a generic public conception of a Bowie song? A soaring vocal with a few condor cries (the ninth-spanning “slooooooow BURRRRRN!”); a “Heroes”-esque rhythm track; a guitar line that set out to trump Reeves Gabrels; a doomy lyric.

There’s no evidence that the panicked post-9/11 atmosphere played a role in shelving “Slow Burn” (for one thing, it was a single in America). Bowie said he’d written his lyric before the attacks and that his lines unnerved him, as he’d managed to predict the feel of life in downtown Manhattan that September. There’s fear on the ground. “The walls shall have eyes and the doors shall have ears,” a faint Biblical reference (see Luke 12:3: “whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops”), offered a preview of our national security state. The most damning, most prophetic lines were in the refrain, written years before the Patriot Act, Abu Ghraib and all the numbing rest of it:

But who are we
So small in times such as these…

slowburn

Bowie had been writing about doomed societies since “We Are Hungry Men,” with his descriptions of America as being full of killers, his clay model recreation of Seventies New York as Hunger City, the Five Years left to us, and so on. Apocalypse could be a joyful thing for him—“Five Years” meant five years of carnival before the End. At least the End was more interesting than “normal” life.

“Slow Burn” is a bled-out, bummed-out apocalypse, a recognition that after living on this earth for a while, you come to realize doomsday predictions have the frequency and excitement of commuter trains. In “Slow Burn” the nearly-static harmonic rhythm of the verses (shuttling between tonic and mediant chords, F to Am/E),* the rounds of Visconti and Bowie backing vocals (“on and on and on and on and on…” “round and round and round..”), suggest there’s nothing new under the sun despite this latest catastrophe. Even the return of the Borneo Horns (Bowie’s brass section from the Eighties) is rather muted: the likes of Lenny Pickett nose their way into the second verse and later mainly work in support of the bassline. Kristeen Young offers a piano line that goes lost in a loop. Doomsday once meant the End at last, but now even the End wasn’t going to end: it would just keeping come around, again and again, its colors fading with each trip.

There’s one vein of anger in the track: Pete Townshend’s lead guitar (unlike the lyric, this was a post-9/11 response). Offering an intro hook by answering a long-sustained chord with strings of bent, distorted notes, Townshend reappears after the first refrain for a run of sirens and shockwaves and then hangs on through the second verse, playing the same choppy chord as a counter-rhythm; it’s as if he’s itching to cut Bowie short, that he fears being caught up in the endless cycle as well.

Pete Townshend Performs At The Concert For NYC

Townshend’s been one of this blog’s minor supporting characters, partly because the blog came close to being a Townshend song-by-song survey: he was the other top contender (if I’d gone with PT, the blog would’ve been called Another Man’s Life). So I found it fun to use Townshend as an ongoing check on the Bowie experiment.

As a character in Bowie’s play, Townshend moves from being a lofty, cutting rival in 1965, lording his powers over Bowie’s shabby band playing Who knock-offs in Bournemouth (see “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving“), to a fellow Sixties self-mythologist in 1973 (“I Can’t Explain“) to 1980, when a depressed, alcoholic Townshend shows up as a ghost from Bowie’s abandoned England, playing a bitter lead guitar on “Because You’re Young.” The latest reconnection came about when Bowie and Townshend met at a wake, the Concert for New York City in October 2001. Returning to London, Townshend got an MP3 of the rough “Slow Burn,” added his lines via Pro Tools, which Bowie and Visconti imported back in New York. So the most bloodless of their interactions yielded Townshend’s most resonant (and final) contribution to Bowie’s work: he’s the song’s blood infusion. Soon afterward Townshend, in an unfortunate mix of idealism and stupidity, would bring down the whirlwind on himself.

Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC; (lead guitar) ca. November 2001, Townshend’s home studio, London; (horns) 29 January 2002, Looking Glass. Released 3 June 2002 in the US and Europe (ISO/Columbia COL 672744 2); only released as a promo single in the UK.

* Moving from the tonic (I) to the mediant (iii) chord means there’s only a one-note difference in the chords. So in our case, it’s F major (F-A-C) moving to A minor/E (E-A-C) and back. Bowie’s just swapping F for E as a “foundation” tone. It’s the same type of progression as Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” a possible influence? (More here). The refrain shakes things up a bit with D minor (vi) chords (the opening “slow burn”) and a B-flat IV chord (“but who are we”) but it’s soon back to the F-Am dance.

Top: Peggy Lee, “Munich, 2001”; Townshend, Concert For New York City, 20 October 2001.


5:15 The Angels Have Gone

May 27, 2014

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5:15 The Angels Have Gone.
5:15 The Angels Have Gone (live, 2002).
5:15 The Angels Have Gone (VH1 Live By Request, 2002).
5:15 The Angels Have Gone (Radio 2, Live and Exclusive, 2002).
5:15 The Angels Have Gone (Later With Jools Holland, 2002).
5:15 The Angels Have Gone (live, 2004).

The tattered end of a baggy trilogy (“Look Back in Anger,” “New Angels of Promise“), “5:15 The Angels Have Gone” is also a curtain-raiser for “Heathen”: it’s a world deserted by God, or at least a world whose inhabitants have gotten rather sick of Him. “A man who could once see his angels—hopes and aspirations, maybe?—can’t see them anymore,” Bowie described the song to Billboard in 2002, “and he blames the crushing dumbness of life for it.”

Bowie’s angels had done little more than look for exits. “Look Back In Anger” has Bowie encountering a bored, low-level bureaucrat (one who’s long given up hope of promotion to arch-angel) who taps at his watch and tells him it’s time they should be going. The “new angels of promise” were just avatars in a video game most computers can’t play today. Now even the glum last intermediaries between man and God are gone, leaving us to steer our lives with railway timetables (the same time Pete Townshend’s Jimmy had caught a train to Brighton)* and astrology columns.

Like “I Would Be Your Slave,” “5:15” is a love ballad in which one party is an estranged god: “weeee never TALK an-ny-more!” Bowie pleads in the refrains, which makes you wonder if Cliff Richard was having his own doubts in the late Seventies. But even Cliff had some bravado in his despair: “I ain’t losin’ sleep! ain’t countin’ sheep!” Bowie’s numbed, dulled, concerned only with what he can see before him. He’s in a foreign station, being rained on, the train’s late (this could well be death, or at least Belgium).

A few colors appear here and there: Bowie’s choir, summoned by the keys of his Chamberlin, swirling in eddies and hockets of sound; a piano that scampers through the refrains; Matt Chamberlain’s drum break, a loud, unresolved argument between crash cymbals and whacked kick drum, which foreshadows Chamberlain’s “live” drums ruling the second verse; Tony Visconti’s little grudging nods on his bass.

And there are some past Bowie lives buried in it—Mr. Norris Changes Trains, “A New Career In a New Town,” even “Station to Station”—which adds to the weary circularity of the whole business. There’s the guitar riff, a small shrug of a melody confined to a guitar’s three low strings—one line starts and ends on notes sounded on an open G string, the other just cuts off, disappointed. Or the drum loop, sounding like a man tattooing a pattern on an anvil (with a shaker for company), that keeps on through the C major verses/breaks, which give way to F# minor refrains. Numbed grief gets interrupted by brief spasms of anger.

Go back to Townshend’s “5:15” for a moment (he’ll show up again soon in this survey). Bowie’s departed angels here seem like Mods: thin on the ground, all legs and wings, strange sandy eyes. The Mod could “pass”—in their sharp suits and neatly-cut hair, they could sit on a train and not draw attention, not bother the old with the impropriety of being young, even though (like Jimmy) they may have been bonked out of their heads on amphetamines or be dreaming about setting fire to the train. The Mod were the last angels in our midst, and now they’re gone. Caught the last train for the coast. Bowie’s left among the squares, a fate that his teenage Mod self would have considered worse than death.

Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 June 2002 on Heathen.

* Also likely used for the tactile pleasure of singing “five-fifteen,” one of the more glorious collection of numbers in the English language (two quick nasally syllables cleansed by a deep long vowel; the alliterative push of “five-fif,” with its furtive romance of the lower lip and teeth). “Five-twenty-five” or “five-forty” doesn’t work half as well.

Top: Surya Sen, “Bombay, 2001.”


Pictures of Lily

February 27, 2014

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Pictures of Lily (the Who, 1967).
Pictures of Lily (Bowie).

An early order of business once Bowie reconvened his band at Looking Glass Studios in early October 2000 was to cut a Who cover. Pete Townshend had asked him to take part in a Who tribute album (Bowie was the bait to hook other contributors, like Pearl Jam and Sheryl Crow). Bowie devoted little time to the task, with much of the recording cut in a few hours.

“Pictures of Lily” was at the apex of an astonishing run of Who singles between 1965 and 1967, Pop at its oddest and most adventurous. I once described “Lily” as “masturbation to centerfolds as cross-generational bonding,” complete with John Entwistle orgasmic French horn solo, and it’s a credit to the gifts and sympathies of Townshend in 1967 that the single broke the UK Top 5 and had a sad, comic humanity despite its potentially grotesque subject. The kid truly falls in love with Lily: Townshend’s guitar thrashing in the last verse is a curse at time.

Covering Townshend in the past, Bowie had bled the life out of his songs (see “I Can’t Explain“) and he kept up the tradition here: halving the Who original’s tempo and generally making a dirge of it. Using only Mark Plati for guitars and bass and Sterling Campbell on drums (with a later-dubbed Lisa Germano for the violin solo), Bowie’s version of “Lily” “came out sounding like a glam version of Crazy Horse,” Plati wrote in his web journal. “We did the entire thing in an afternoon, complete with Stylophone solo, Ronson homage outro and football hooligan chanting courtesy of the three of us.” Thanks to the molasses tempo, Plati’s guitars verge towards shoegaze at times while Campbell has to plot out his drum fills; the key change midway through the chorus, which erupts out of nowhere in the Who single, is as labored as a jet takeoff here.

Townshend reportedly liked Bowie’s aged glamster take on his song (he’d soon return the favor on Heathen). A sympathetic reading of the cover is that it’s about a kid who wants to grow up to be Lily, not just fantasize about her. As a treat, Bowie took his band to see the surviving Who at Madison Square Garden.

Recorded ca. 10-13 October 2000, Looking Glass Studios. Released on 12 June 2001 on Substitute: the Songs of the Who (Edel 0126242ERE).

* Townshend once said the Lily of the song was inspired by a postcard of “an old vaudeville star, Lily Bayliss” but he was likely confusing Baylis, who was a renowned theatrical producer, with the actress Lillie Langtry, who has indeed been dead since 1929. Though this being Townshend, who knows.

Top: Jennifer Connelly and Jared Leto, Requiem for a Dream (Aronofsky, 2000).


I Can’t Explain

July 23, 2010

I Can’t Explain (The Who, 1965).
I Can’t Explain (Bowie).

I Can’t Explain (Bowie, 1980 Floor Show, 1973).

I Can’t Explain (Bowie, live, 1983).

Weaker talents idealize; figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves. But nothing is got for nothing, and self-appropriation involves the immense anxieties of indebtedness, for what strong maker desires the realization that he has failed to create himself?

Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence.

Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Pete Townshend checked Bowie at every turn. In 1965, when the two first met in Bournemouth, Townshend gave Bowie some condescending criticism about the latter’s songwriting, which Townshend noted was rather blatantly ripping off his own songs, and badly (see “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving”). The two had had little contact since. Then in the summer of 1973 Bowie covered two early Who songs on his new record, while Townshend was revisiting the ’60s as well, finishing up his Mod opus Quadrophenia.

The 1965-7 run which spans “I Can’t Explain” and “I Can See For Miles” works in terms of aesthetic power and urgent “now” reportage; Townshend is ceaselessly looking outwards, towards his audience, wanting to understand and empathise with them—these songs completely avoid sentimentality, oneupmanship and navel-gazing…via [Roger] Daltrey’s as yet untutored voice, you feel that they are singing to you and for you—and, sometimes (“My Generation”) at those who would rather not listen.

Marcello Carlin, on Who’s Next.

“One of the things [Bowie] does very well is find the strong parts of other artist’s “acts” and appropriate them into his own persona,” wrote an insightful, anonymous person in this ILM thread on Bowie. But Bowie never could figure out Townshend. Townshend was a playwright as much as he was a songwriter, with bizarre, first-person psychodramas that required a group to act out, whether it was a cad dumping his pregnant girlfriend (“A Legal Matter”) or a kid so fraudulent he may not even exist (“Substitute”), or masturbation to centerfolds as cross-generational bonding (“Pictures of Lily”) or the utterly bizarre and wonderful “I’m a Boy,” a rock single Philip K. Dick could’ve written. Townshend’s perspective was usually that of another, whether it was lyrics for Daltrey to sing or stories for an audience to piece together. The vocals on Who tracks—Daltrey’s growl, Townshend’s reedy tenor, John Entwistle’s near-soprano (or basso profundo)—sounded like the pieces of a single voice, joined together for a few minutes.

The group is a fairly simple form of Pop art. We get a lot of audience this way. Off stage, the group get on terribly badly.

Townshend, ca. 1966 (interview clip from The Kids Are Alright).

Did anyone believe in rock and roll as much as Townshend did in his youth? He was an evangelist whose audience had converted him, so much that he ended Tommy, his record about false messiahs, by submitting to the crowd, the true religion. He nearly had a breakdown writing a rock opera in which the audience would input their vital stats—climacteric charts, personal appearance, beliefs, etc.—into a computer, which would then convert the data into personalized musical signatures, with the hope that all of these signatures, played at once on quadrophenic speakers, would form one final, “universal” note or chord.

Townshend’s hope for the ecstatic universal in rock music was as far removed as you could get from Bowie, who, despite how much he relied on creative partners (from Mick Ronson to Eno to Reeves Gabrels), remained entirely singular. His songs could be empathic, but they were also unmistakably his perspectives. At the end, you always find yourself outside his songs. Bowie and Townshend were of irreconcilable minds, of irreconcilable worlds, and perhaps that got to Bowie, who had so capably absorbed so many other of his influences.

Is that why Bowie’s cover of The Who’s first major single, “I Can’t Explain,” is such a disaster? It’s an act of vandalism, as though Bowie intended to strip the song of everything that gave it power—Keith Moon’s whirlwind drumming, which is the track’s lead instrument; the surf group backing vocals in the verses; the pilled-up beat—and then watched it die. Ronson, rather than trying to one-up Townshend’s guitar solos, sounds neutered.

The most perverse misreading is in Bowie’s vocal. “I Can’t Explain” is sung by a kid who has never been in love, maybe he’s never even been attracted to another person before in his life, and suddenly it’s happening, and his life no longer makes sense. As with most of the early Who singles, “I Can’t Explain” is entirely of the present, with the singer trying to trap something unknowable and new into words—he should rush out the lyric, push against the flow of the music, sink under it. The vocal should be dizzy and frantic, and far from sensual. Instead, Bowie sings “I Can’t Explain” slowly, coolly, teasing out the lyric, lingering on phrases like a cabaret vamp: he’s appalling in his confidence.

Recorded July-early August 1973. Bowie performed it on his 1980 Floor Show TV special in October 1973, and he brought “Can’t Explain” back a decade later for his “Serious Moonlight” tour. The song still eluded him.

Top: Keith Moon conquers London, 1973.