Red Money

July 1, 2011

Red Money.

The last track on Bowie’s last record of the Seventies, “Red Money” is freighted with symbolism, so much that it seems like a snare Bowie laid for would-be interpreters. It’s obviously (way too obviously) Bowie closing down the Eno, Iggy Pop and Berlin era, coming full circle by recycling the music of “Sister Midnight,” the opening track on Pop’s The Idiot (and so the first piece of music from the era), while in “Red Money”‘s refrain he sings “project cancelled!”

Uncut asked Bowie in 2001 about whether this indicated “the curtain being drawn on the Eno triptych.” Bowie replied, “Not at all. Mere whimsy.” (Tony Visconti, asked the same question, said he had no idea. “Ask David.“)

One should never underestimate how much of Bowie’s seemingly calculated moves were mere whimsy. Still “Red Money” fits with the themes Bowie was developing in Lodger, and which would further play out in Scary Monsters—fears of being reduced to an influence, impending obsolescence, a weariness with songwriting and performing, a broadening of perspective beyond the hermetic theater of the mind to (possibly) the greater world. “I am what I play,” Bowie sang in “D.J.”: “Red Money” is, literally, Bowie covering himself, making a palimpsest of a track, erasing Iggy Pop from the song that Bowie gave him.

“Sister Midnight” was a summoning, “Red Money” is a dismissal. Pop had coolly invoked the muse, raged into an Oedipal dream. Bowie offers men “who aren’t men” stranded in diseased, surreal landscapes, collecting blood money, aborting their missions. Bowie once told an interviewer the image of “the small red box” (“I couldn’t give it away/and I knew I must not drop it”) symbolized responsibility for him, with “Red Money” being in part Bowie’s resignation letter. Still, that could have been yet another red herring.

Visconti said that none of the Alomar/Murray/Davis band recut their performances for “Red Money,” so the reworking is essentially a Bowie solo track, with Bowie (and likely Adrian Belew) responsible for the new guitar dubs and the clattering electronic percussion. Bowie sings the title line in four-part harmony with himself, closes the decade down by singing “it’s up to you and me,” his voice drowning in guitars.

Recorded September 1978 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and March 1979 at the Record Plant, NYC.

Top: Lalla Ward regards her future ex-husband with faint amusement, Paris, 1979.

Impending break

I’ll be on vacation for much of July, heading off to Scotland and London. It’s a good time for it, as I need a break from this beast; I had intended to finish Lodger before I left, but what can you do. So after the next entry (coming early next week), there won’t be any new posts until July 20 or so. See everyone then.