Prisoner of Love

June 13, 2012

Prisoner of Love.
Prisoner of Love (video).
Prisoner of Love (live, 1989).

The only group songwriting effort on Tin Machine, apart from the band’s theme song, is “Prisoner of Love,” in which Bowie, Reeves Gabrels and the Saleses write a Iggy Pop song, with Bowie serving as Pop’s stand-in. Pop’s absence, his growing estrangement from Bowie, is the context of Tin Machine. It’s not only that songs like “Prisoner,” “Heaven’s In Here” and “Run” seem intended for his voice and/or reference Pop’s work (at the end of “Prisoner,” Bowie recycles the Allen Ginsberg Howl quote that Pop had used on “Little Miss Emperor”). Tin Machine itself seemed to be Bowie reassembling Pop in plural, separating the wild man primitivist (Hunt Sales) from the underground American intellectual (Gabrels).

Pop had been a muse, a collaborator, a friend to Bowie, and in the Eighties, he had been a lifeline: a defiant personality ready to do battle with the world no matter how much shit was thrown at him. Global fame and wealth had made Bowie empty, had made him doubt the value of work, a belief that had kept him going even when he was most estranged from humanity. Pop, even in his most pathetic hours, retained a belief in redemption via making art. Having never really succeeded, Pop had no need to please anyone and he treated whatever success that he came across as a private joke.

Bowie and Pop’s fortunes finally shifted in the late Eighties. A year after Bowie released Tin Machine to modest sales and ridicule, Pop made what would be the best-selling record of his life: Brick by Brick. In the album Pop wanders through a flyblown America; he’s a ridiculous, dissolute figure who’s the closest thing that the country has left to nobility. Its best tracks (“Home,” “Candy,Neon Forest“) take solace in lust and wisecracks, or the idea of home as being the one right they can’t strip away from you. Pop’s political asides— “America takes drugs in psychic defense,” “this whole country’s scared of failure“—had a hard-won beat wisdom, unlike Bowie’s splenetic rants on Tin Machine.

And although Brick by Brick, produced by Don Was, is crammed with celebrity muso cameos, from Slash to Waddy Wachtel, Pop seems relaxed, hardly bothered by the sudden opulence. It’s like a tramp kicking back in the lobby of the Ritz-Carlton, saying yeah, this works. The joy of the early Nineties was that the oddballs who had been knocking around for a while, the Iggy Pops and Kate Piersons, the Bob Moulds and David Lowerys, the Michael Stipes and Sinead O’Connors, suddenly were everywhere, on the radio and TV, as if the world had finally come around to their perspectives.

So “Prisoner of Love” could’ve been on Brick by Brick, and Pop may have sung it better than Bowie. That said, “Prisoner” is one of the finest tracks on Tin Machine, with a sense of melancholy and passion, even a grandeur in the chorus. Bowie’s lyric seems crafted to be sung for once—the repeating ell and vee sounds in the first verse (“whatever it takes…I’ve believed I belonged to you for a long time“), or the gently arcing vocal line in the bridge, where, after hitting a high G (‘don’t be“) Bowie gracefully sinks to an octave below (“fools who“). The lyric, Bowie later said, was a pledge to his new lover Melissa Hurley, a woman who was far younger and less jaded than he (“just stay square“), though with typical Bowie irony the title also references Jean Genet’s last work— Genet’s ode to Palestinian guerrillas and to the concept of perpetual revolution, written as Genet was dying.* (It’s also a James Brown reference.)

Gabrels and Kevin Armstrong made the track, whether Armstrong’s barrages of rhythm guitar in the verses that harry Bowie’s vocal melody, or Gabrels serving as a one-man guitar orchestra: the Hank Marvin-style twanging opening riff; the way Gabrels becomes a string section in the bridge and chorus; the “chimes” sound that Gabrels got by using a plectrum between the trapeze tailpiece and bridge of an old Gretsch; the weeping lines he plays as the song fades. On a record so generally devoted to dominance and bluster, it’s a masterful, gorgeous collective performance.

Recorded ca. August 1988 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. “Prisoner” was released as the album’s third single in October 1989 (EMI MT 76 c/w live versions of “Baby Can Dance” and “Crack City”): it went nowhere.

* The lyric has some groaners, too, of course: “like a sermon on blues guitar, love walked into town.” I’d like to think Bowie was mocking Bono here.

Top: Gundula Schulze Eldowy, “Berlin, 1987.”