I’ve Been Waiting For You

May 5, 2014

2001oyos

I’ve Been Waiting For You (Neil Young, 1968).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (The Pixies, 1990).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (Tin Machine, live, 1991).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (Neil Young, live, 2001.)
I’ve Been Waiting For You (Bowie, 2002).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (Live By Request, 2002).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (live, 2002).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (live, 2002).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (live, 2003).

The Sixties are definitely not with us anymore…the change into the music of the Seventies is starting to come with people like David Bowie and Lou Reed…they don’t expect to live more than thirty years and they don’t care. And they don’t care. They’re in the Seventies. What I’m tryin’ to say is these people like Lou Reed and Davie Booie or Bowie, however you pronounce it, those folks—I think they got somethin’ there, heh heh. Take a walk on the wild side!

Neil Young, 1973.

Sometime in June 2001, David Bowie drove up from New York City to West Nyack, where Tony Visconti had a modest studio in a modest house. His girlfriend cracked that Bowie would step out of his limo, take one look at their place, say that he’d forgotten something in NYC and head home. Instead, Bowie was Visconti’s lodger for a few days.

Since the late Nineties, the two had planned to make an album but Bowie had felt the times, and his moods, hadn’t been right. Now he’d cooled to a proper degree. He was in the vestibule of life, an eye on each door. That April, his mother had died at 88. A month later, Freddi Burretti, his former project, muse and costume designer, had died of cancer at age 49. And he was a father again at 54, with an infant daughter at home.

Meeting in NYC earlier that spring, Bowie and Visconti spent a day listening to recent albums (Beck’s Midnite Vultures, among others) and “looking for little creative tags to incorporate for the new album,” Visconti wrote in his autobiography. Struck by how Bowie had harnessed old addictions into socially acceptable habits, brewing pot after strong pot of coffee on the hour (he was even trying to shake cigarettes), Visconti wrote: “I couldn’t help thinking how great it was that we’d survived the indulgences of rock ‘n’ roll. We were alive and sober.”

Alive and Sober could’ve been the new album’s title. Visconti found in Bowie, with whom he hadn’t worked on an LP since the Carter administration, a new deliberateness that could pass for maturity. “His knowledge of harmonic and chordal structure had vastly improved,” he said. “This had already been good when I last worked with him, but now there was more depth to his melodic and harmonic writing.”

Aware that “Bowie and Visconti” would generate scads of expectations for fans and the aging portion of the music press, the pair figured that some measure of grandiosity was inevitable. So Visconti proposed a “magnum opus” concept: a group of songs sharing an autumnal feel, fattened with “layers of layers of overdubs,” which suited Bowie’s introspective mood (he was still expecting Toy to be issued any month). But Bowie was adamant that he wanted the album to sound fresh, not to traffic in expected memory. It would be compared to Scary Monsters, sure, but it shouldn’t sound like Scary Monsters. It would be old age made new.

In West Nyack, they cut four demos in Visconti’s loft studio. Visconti had started using Pro Tools and Logic Pro, and he took pains to show Bowie how the software worked. “I cut up beats and sections of a song, made beat loops and pasted them in other places.”

The next day they drove north, up to the Catskill mountains, where there was a recording studio called Allaire.

allare

A swath of the Hudson River Valley and the hunched shoulders of the Catskills is something of a rock ‘n’ roll historical theme park. The Band’s “Big Pink” house is in West Saugerties; Steely Dan’s Annandale-on-Hudson and Barrytown are across the river; Mercury Rev‘s Opus 40 is off the NY Thruway; the former Bearsville Studios (Todd Rundgren, etc.) is near Woodstock, where Dylan once crashed his motorcycle on Striebel Road. Off to the west is Bethel, where the Woodstock Festival took place (its 1994 sequel was in Saugerties, the catastrophic 1999 edition farther upstate, in Rome).

Southwest of Woodstock is Mount Tonche, atop whose crest the Pittsburgh Plate Glass heir Raymond Pitcairn built a summer manse, Glen Tonche, in 1928. Pitcairn, a devoted enemy of the New Deal and foe of indulgences like child labor laws, erected an 18,000-square-foot hideaway with a commanding view of the Ashokan Reservoir. Its fleets of rooms were garnished with what Bowie described as “very American but aristocratic pieces of work,” like sections of yachts: it’s as though a tide of wealth had ebbed through the house, leaving behind a wrack of costly toys.

The Pitcairn family sold Glen Tonche in the mid-Nineties to the musician Randall Wallace, who converted some rooms, like a dining hall blessed with 40-foot-high ceilings, into recording studios.*

Bowie and Visconti, who’d been tipped off about Wallace’s Allaire Studios by the guitarist David Torn, were on a reconnaissance visit. They were stunned by the place, by its imposing isolation. “This is not cute, on top of this mountain: it’s stark and it has a Spartan quality about it,” Bowie recalled. Though not far from Woodstock, Allaire seemed to exist in another sylvan dimension: a luxurious human colony nestled in a wood-world of black bear, wild pigs and deer.

It was almost an epiphany that I had,” Bowie told Interview in June 2002. “Walking through the door, everything that my album should be about was galvanized for me into one focal point…I knew what the lyrics were already. They were all suddenly accumulated in my mind.”

As we’ll see, the area’s feeling of refuge appealed to Bowie. In the following years, he’d buy a whole side of a mountain in the area, and he’s still up in the Woodstock region, an occasional sight at local coffee shops.

allaire

At Allaire, Bowie and Visconti ran into the drummer Matt Chamberlain, who was recording an album with Natalie Merchant and T-Bone Burnett at the time, and they quickly decided to recruit him. Having booked their drummer and their studio, the pair began work in July 2001, with Bowie settling his family in a cottage on the grounds.

The album that became Heathen was (initially) one of the more sparsely-assembled works of Bowie’s recorded life. It was The Buddha of Suburbia in a grander key. For the first sessions at Allaire, the players were only Bowie (guide vocals, guitars, keyboards, Stylophone, even occasional drums), Visconti (bass, guitar, recorder) and Chamberlain (drums, loops). A routine fell into place. Bowie rose at 5 or 6 AM to work on songs in the studio or write lyrics, while Visconti and Chamberlain woke at a more civilized hour, exercised and showed up around 10:30 AM, upon which Bowie would present them with their “songs of the day,” Visconti said. As dinner at Allaire was 7 PM sharp, that marked the cut-off point. Bowie would keep working at night while Visconti and Chamberlain watched DVDs or sacked out early. “This certainly wasn’t a rock ‘n’ roll life, by any stretch of the imagination,” Visconti wrote.

Still, the pace was vigorous enough that in roughly two weeks the trio cut basic tracks for 19 songs. Bowie wrote a sequence of brooding, lengthy pieces early in the sessions, so as to get the heavy stuff out of the way first, he said (see the next four entries). But he’d also drafted a list of prospective covers that he’d wanted to try.

Over the years, this blog hasn’t been very kind to Bowie’s covers. The likes of “Across the Universe,” “God Only Knows,” “Bang Bang,” “Kingdom Come,” “I Keep Forgettin’,” “It Ain’t Easy” and so on form a rather grim canon. But now there was an urgency, a lightness to his covers on Heathen (and Reality). Maybe all of his lyrical dwellings on cyclicality and fleeting time played a part; maybe, rather than just singing over some track that his musicians cooked up, actually working out songs on guitar or keyboard let him take firmer root in the compositions. Something had fallen away, some bitter strain of ambition, some habit of overthinking that had hobbled so many of his earlier takes of others’ songs. He became an inspired interpreter at last; he sounded at home singing someone else’s lines.

roskilde

The three covers on Heathen, along with being spry lightweights set against the slab-like big bruiser tracks, were memory tokens. So start with Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting For You.” This was Bowie paying a debt to an old influence (he’d been consumed with Young while writing Hunky Dory: you can hear Young’s melodies and phrasings in “Kooks” and “Bombers,” even “Bewlay Brothers”) as well as a nod to his departed collaborator Reeves Gabrels. Tin Machine had played “I’ve Been Waiting For You” during its 1991-92 tour, with Gabrels on lead vocal and wearying lead guitar.

On Earthling‘s “Dead Man Walking,” Bowie had toyed with the image of Young and Crazy Horse converting rock and roll into some earth-worshiping religion; old men stomping about on stage like Tolkien’s Ents. Bowie also used Young as a map of how to age in a music where old age is a personal failing. As he told the Kansas City Star (9 May 2004):

When things go bad, I’ve always looked to my peers and, in a way, my musical mentors to see what they’ve done in similar situations. Neil Young and Bob Dylan have done similar things: They have both made a few disastrous albums, but they always end up coming back to the point of what they started in the first place. You’ve got to go back to what you were doing when you were rooting around with experimentation, ideas that are going to work for me, not my audience.

folder

Singing “I’ve Been Waiting For You” had another angle. The track was from Young’s 1968 debut album. Much like Deram’s David Bowie, Neil Young is a first impression of a mutable performer, the work of an ambitious, dreamy man who’d struck loose from a band and wanted to sound out his whims. So Young and David Briggs had rotated through Los Angeles studios during summer 1968, cutting overdubs, playing games in the mixes (a favorite move was to shimmer guitars back and forth across the stereo spectrum) and spending days on guitar tones (“that record is a masterpiece of tones,” Briggs later told Jimmy McDonough. “We got tones nobody’s ever got except Hendrix.”). Young’s debut has an piece for string quartet, dolorous folkie ballads, unending folkie ballads, a Western movie theme and a few beautiful obsessional songs devoted to a typical set of unattainable, mystifying women.

The latter songs channeled Jimi Hendrix, of whom Young was in awe (“there was no one even in the same building as that guy,” he later said of Hendrix). In particular there was “I’ve Been Waiting for You,” with its “Foxy Lady”-esque heavy breathing and its squall of a guitar solo, for which Young’s guitar was sent through an organ’s Leslie speaker and then piped directly into the soundboard.

Anchored in A minor, the song’s reappearing D9 chord (“for a woman,” “with the feeling“) is a liberation declined: instead of using the D9 as a means to brighten into A major (or move to D), the song sinks back into A minor. It reflects how Young’s been passively waiting for some life-redeeming woman, who’s always just about to appear and never does. (Also take how the intro/later chorus opens with a D suspended 2nd chord that aches to resolve to D major but the sequence instead cools into, naturally, A minor). A brief obsessional, “I’ve Been Waiting for You” is a single verse, a refrain with a descending chromatic bassline for drama (“waiting for you...and you’ve been coming to mee“) and Young’s piped anguish via guitars.

On Neil Young, the track was the future: the Neil Young of the Seventies (and 2000s) roamed around in its confines. Everything Young would become was corked in it; the feel and the weight of his grand old age was there already, summoned up in a track that a 23-year-old cut in summer 1968, happily oblivious to what would become his life.

R-1556857-1228166141

Bowie knew the track from his days listening to Young, but “I’ve Been Waiting for You” was also one of Kim Deal’s favorite Neil Young songs. During the Bossanova sessions, the Pixies knocked off a version of the song and issued it as a B-side. They dumped the loping bassline/clopping drums of the Young original (the rhythm section was Poco, basically) for a drum track that was all hard business. Black Francis and Joey Santiago warred over it. Deal sang blankly, indulging in none of Young’s mystics; there was a cold rasp in how she delivered “a woman with a feeling…of losing once or twice.” Though playing the searcher, she had some sympathy for the pursued.

So for his cover, Bowie used the Pixies’ structure of recycling half the verse after the solo and halving the solo’s length, and he added a few Tin Machine flavors, like the wailing harmony vocals that he’d sung to buttress Gabrels on stage (here, they were a distorted-sounding synthetic “choir,” an effect he’d use on “Sunday,” among other tracks).

He recruited for lead guitar Dave Grohl (it was a mailbox transaction: Bowie sent the tapes to Grohl, who recorded his parts and sent them back), who was working up his current role as genial Gen X ambassador from classic rock. Grohl’s playing was fine if not memorable, with Grohl worrying the solo’s underlying chords in a less cheeky way than Santiago had on the Pixies version. Bowie should’ve had a go at the guitars himself (for all we know, he did): his whining Diamond Dogs tone would have been an nice spice in the mix.

The guitars came under fire from the drums, with Chamberlain’s dominant position in the mix seemingly won in battle. In the verse, Bowie sounded more callow than Young had in 1968 but in the refrains, a second vocal sunk down an octave gave his hopes a dimension of menace. How long has he been waiting, after all? In the closing refrain, Bowie sang “long time now” as if he could taste every hour of every wasted year. Having thrashed and wailed for three minutes, the track gave up the ghost with an unmoored bassline, a guitar clanging like a ship’s bell and the choir of bottled voices snuffed out in a breath.

Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (guitar solo) Dave Grohl’s home studio, ca. October 2001; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 June 2002 on Heathen and also as a Canadian-only CD single (Columbia 38K 3369).

* The Glen Tonche estate has been up for sale for years: it’s yours for $4.5 million.

Top: Vassilis D. Gonis, from series “Christina Hoyos at Lycabetus Hill Theater,” Athens, 2001. (“I started this blog…to send my photos out there to the world with the hope of communication and as a motivation to keep clear away from the depressing feeling that comes along with the economic crisis in Greece.”); Walters-Storyk Design Group, Allaire Studios, New York (from without; from within); Neil Young at Roskilde Festival, 2001; Bowie’s philtrum as CD single art.


Jewel

January 31, 2014

thened

Jewel (Reeves Gabrels with Frank Black, Bowie and Dave Grohl).

If I wanted to play on baked bean commercials, that’s what I’d do. I’m already past that. I’m working on my vision, dammit. It might not be a good one, but it’s mine.

Reeves Gabrels.

Erdal Kizilcay’s recent interview cast fresh light onto Bowie’s icy professional side: nearly every collaborator has a story of receiving a “your services are no longer required” notice, from Woody Woodmansey, Trevor Bolder and Mike Garson to Carlos Alomar and Kizilcay (“[Bowie] changed his way of being with me at the end of the recording of Outside. I don’t even know why, for what reason.”).

Reeves Gabrels was one of the few Bowie collaborators who quit.1 His last performance with Bowie was a VH1 Storytellers set, filmed in New York on 23 August 1999. You can try to read the impending break into their brief exchanges (the only moment with any slight tension is a crack about Tin Machine), but from most accounts Bowie was blindsided when Gabrels told him four days later that he wouldn’t tour, causing Bowie to scramble to find a new lead guitarist (Helmet’s Page Hamilton, as it turned out).

Gabrels has given a few reasons for his resignation over the years: exhaustion from dealing with Bowie’s management and advisors, as he’d had to scrap for every bit of songwriting credit and an acceptable pay rate (“A lot of it didn’t have to to with David as much as…just dealing with some of the people around him,” he told Paul Trynka); some personal entanglements (he was having a child with Bowie’s wardrobe mistress). And as in 1995, he’d cut a solo album but now was supposed to set aside his promotion for Bowie’s. Further, Gabrels’ album was meant to have had a number of songs that wound up on ‘Hours.’ His professional life had gone lost in the shadow of his partner:

It is always a bittersweet compliment to me when fans, writers and reviewers say that my “unique” guitar style was important in defining the sound of any of the records I did with David. The reason for that is the fact that on most every album I have done with him, I also co-written the majority of the songs and co-produced,” he told Music Dish in 2003. “I may be overly sensitive to this issue, but I am continually amazed by the number of musicians, fans and music critics who seem to be unaware of the amount of songwriting I did with David or my involvement as a producer.”

He’d also lasted long enough in the ring to know when Bowie’s mood was turning. Tony Visconti was coming back into the picture; Bowie’s next record was going to be Pin Ups 2 (My Life As a Mod); the Ziggy Stardust 30th anniversary CD/film/musical boondoggle was still being talked up. Bowie was discarding his pre-millennial interests in jungle and, increasingly, the Internet. “I always tried to be aware of David’s legacy,” he told David Buckley. “But a big part of that legacy is the pursuit of the new. When I became more aware of the desire to do more old songs and eliminate the sequential information and loops from our new music2, I realized that what David wanted from the music was quickly diverging from what I needed…I was ready to move on, take control of my life and pursue my own course.”

If Gabrels had stayed, he felt it would have been for a paycheck and residual fame. He feared becoming a bitter guitar hack who stood on stage replicating Mick Ronson lines on “Suffragette City” and “Jean Genie” each night, “becom[ing] everything I had disliked in musicians I had known…or I was gonna die because I would be so miserable I would just drug myself to death,” he told Trynka. He was calling his solo album Ulysses: a lost man who needed to make his way home.

dbrg

So he left (the press was told that Gabrels was taking a break from the promo tour but would be back for the next album). For a time he and Bowie kept in touch but there was a fairly sharp break around the mid-2000s. His departure was welcomed by some quarters of Bowie fandom: Gabrels, to some fans, had come to symbolize everything they disliked about Bowie’s new music, from his shabby Berkelee professor look on stage to his skronkfest guitar solos. His leaving signaled a return of the classics, a welcome resumption of taste: it was safe to go to a Bowie show again.

Bowie had met Gabrels during one of his lows. He was isolated in a comfortable Swiss exile, feeling like a cossetted indentured servant to his label, wondering why he kept at the pop music racket after the drubbing he took for Never Let Me Down and the Glass Spider tour. A decade later, it was Gabrels who was lost, Bowie who knew in which direction he needed to go.

Gabrels, more than any other Bowie sideman, was someone who didn’t seem to buy the myth. When Bowie risked making himself look the fool, Gabrels called him on it, and he likely spared us a few disasters. Interview after interview in the Nineties will find Gabrels busting Bowie’s chops on something. He had the audacity to believe that his work, his insights, were as vital as Bowie’s: he made Bowie’s music fit his sensibilities as much as he worked within Bowie’s frames; he didn’t kowtow to celebrity. This attitude could make for hard stretches of music: his solos, at their most punishing, seem intended to kill the songs they’re housed in. And he wanted credit: he wasn’t going to be consigned to the fate of a Ronson, an essential contributor without a single Bowie song credit to his name.

You could argue that Gabrels was the only true creative partner, besides Eno and Iggy Pop, that Bowie has ever known. Bowie had spent his youth destroying the bands that he joined because he couldn’t abide compromising with others. He killed off the Spiders because they were casing him up in a box. He finally wound up adrift. So in 1988, he let an obscure post-punk shredder from Boston start bossing him around. Looking back at his professional life, there’s no one else who Bowie seemed to respect more than he did Gabrels at times. Gabrels was his loud conscience (or an extended middle finger), and the best of Bowie’s Nineties music is inconceivable without him.

tincrop

Ulysses (Della Notte) was the album Bowie had wanted ‘Hours’ to be, distribution-wise: it was a 21st Century release in 1999, available solely as a download. Gabrels signed an agreement with CDDB, which for a flat fee distributed MP3s across a variety of platforms, including RealJukebox, WinAmp and MusicMatch.”The Internet lets me make my music available to listeners within a week of completion. And these songs are coming out unaltered or remixed by a record label’s A&R department. What you hear is what I wanted you to get. No compromises,” he said at the time.

Bowie contributed to one song on it, a big honking collision of a track called “Jewel” that also featured Frank Black, Dave Grohl and Mark Plati. It’s as if they all got together over drinks one night to write a song that would sum up “the Nineties” for their children: it’s such a garish example of “alterna-rock” that it sounds like it was made a decade later as a spoof by someone like Andy Samberg.

Its origins were, unsurprisingly, casual: Black, Grohl, Gabrels and Bowie hung out after Bowie’s 50th anniversary show in 1997, and Grohl, possibly joking and in “some sort of stupor” (Gabrels), said they should form the alt-rock version of Blind Faith. “Just do one record, one tour and be done with it,” Grohl said. “We’d have a great time.” (This was per Gabrels’ recollection: “[Grohl] probably doesn’t even remember this.”)

Later, Black and Gabrels got together to write a song and, recalling Grohl’s “Blind Faith II” conceit, they got Grohl to drum and sing backup, then roped in Bowie to sing a verse: Grohl recalled Bowie scribbling lines on sheets of paper spread across the studio floor. Black took the first verse; Gabrels got the refrains, sounding like a more doleful J. Mascis. Bowie’s verse, which he sang in a series of erratic voices, was his last go at being an embarrassing “rave uncle”. He seemed to be leering throughout it.

“Jewel” was a nose-tweaking farewell to a decade of riches—the last time that a group of weirdos like Black, Bowie and Gabrels would be funded by major international labels. It was a perfect way for Bowie and Gabrels to go out: tastelessly, and not acting close to their ages. Play it loud and bother your neighbor. Bye, Reeves.

Recorded 1999? earlier?. Released on Ulysses (Della Notte), first issued as a download on 4 November 1999 via CDDB Inc. and as a CD in 2000.

1: It’s still tough to conclude whether Mick Ronson jumped or was pushed: a bit of both.

2: One irony was that Gabrels soon had his own traditionalist turn. For his Rockonica, he went analog. “Having spent the previous six years using Logic/Pro-Tools on everything I wrote or produced…I was pretty tired of the “man alone in front of a computer” thing. In fact, that whole treated-drum-loop-electronic-rock-band-vibe that I was into in the middle of the last decade seemed soooo tired out to me,” he told Music Dish. “While you can’t fault the technology (computers don’t make boring music, people do), I just felt like to record digitally would have been so very, very nineties.”

Top to bottom: DB and RG, 1999; 1996; 1989.


1917

November 8, 2013

99london

Thrust (Omikron, 1999).
1917.

Issued as a B-side of “Thursday’s Child,” “1917” (Russian Revolution? Duchamp’s Fountain? the first jazz records?) was an elaboration of “Thrust,” a synth piece Bowie and Reeves Gabrels wrote to score a demon battle in the Omikron game. Reincarnating the string/brass/Mellotron line of Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” as a synthesizer loop that’s flavored in spots by Gabrels’ guitar, Bowie mumble-sings a guide vocal while being piped through various means of distortion. (He seems to be singing “I’m a man” for much of it: was this whole thing some cracked tribute to Jimmy Page?) Mark Plati’s bass and a keyboard line do most of the harmonic lifting; Gabrels shows up midway through for a boiling tea-kettle impression.

As throwaways go, “1917” has hooks and brevity in its corner, if its punch is sapped by the onion-skin-thick beats that Sterling Campbell’s (or Mike Levesque’s) drums do what they can to bolster. While including it on ‘Hours’ could have helped lessen the record’s world-weariness, “1917” was best suited as the happy obscurity it still is.

Recorded ca. January 1999, London/Paris; April-May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda, with overdubs at Looking Glass Studios and Chung King Studios, NYC. Released 20 September 1999 on the “Thursday’s Child” 2-CD single (Virgin 7243 8 96266 0 5) and later included on the 2004 reissue of ‘Hours.’

Top: “Tom,” “Turning Point Starts Here,” London 1999.


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.


You’ve Been Around

September 20, 2012

You’ve Been Around (live, Tin Machine, 1989).
You’ve Been Around.
You’ve Been Around (video).
You’ve Been Around (Jack Dangers 12″ mix).
You’ve Been Around (Reeves Gabrels, with Bowie and Gary Oldman, 1995).

As “You’ve Been Around” was sequenced as the first vocal track to appear on Black Tie White Noise,* it was Bowie’s first “solo” statement in six years. Unsurprisingly, many took the song to be a pledge to his new wife or his latest self-reassessment, a fresh shareholder’s letter by an absentee owner (“I stay over many years/I should have thought of that,” plus a tossed-in reference to “Changes”). But “Around” was actually Bowie’s drastic revision of his recent past. The song dated to the start of Bowie’s collaboration with Reeves Gabrels in 1988. Tin Machine had even played it once on stage, at the start of their 1989 tour.

Bowie later said “Around” had never worked with Tin Machine, blaming in part his own obstinacy—he had refused to accept what the rest of the band wanted to do with the song, so it was shelved. He wound up holding it in reserve until he had the freedom to rethink the song, using a different cast of players. The BTWN version of “Around” didn’t alter much of Bowie’s cut-up-derived lyric (only a few lines were rejiggered, mainly for better ease of singing). What the remake did was effectively erase the song’s co-composer, Gabrels.

The original “You’ve Been Around,” as evidenced by its sole live recording and demo (the latter recycled by Gabrels on a solo record, see below), was built on one of Gabrels’ best guitar hooks of the period—a grungy ostinato figure that was the meat of the song, which was otherwise an oddly structured piece, with its rambling, barely-melodic verses trailing into brief refrain tags.

Bowie, working with Nile Rodgers, erased the riff from the equation, instead centering the track on a rhythmic base: a synthesizer “bed,” Barry Campbell’s pulsating bassline and a combination of live drums (either Pugi Bell or Sterling Campbell, the latter soon to become Bowie’s main drummer) and drum machine programming. He had Gabrels come in to provide the guitars and then perversely mixed him so low that he’s barely audible in places, while Bowie gave the main solo, which had been a gorgeous melodic run by Gabrels, to Lester Bowie’s elated trumpet. (Further burying Gabrels was Rodgers, who plays classic Chic-style rhythm guitar in the second verse and chorus). In a promo interview for the album, Bowie said: “I had the chance to mix Reeves way into the background. I thought that would doubtlessly really irritate him, which indeed it did.“**

The rethink of “Around” fit Bowie’s apparent overall intention for BTWN, which was to avoid easy pleasures, to the point of perversity at times; a seeming distrust of pop immediacy is all over the record. Here Bowie took a song that easily would have been a highlight of the first Tin Machine record, and one which just as easily could have been a bright, roaring album opener on BTWN, and converted it into a strange piece of art funk, offering a dance foundation for a four-chord drone in B minor (the refrain sinking deeper into E minor, with only a brief escape into F# major (“bad from wrong”)). “What I like about the first half of the song is that there’s no harmonic reference,” Bowie said. “It’s just drums, and the vocal comes out of nowhere—you’re not sure if it’s a melody line or a drone. It’s an ominous feeling.”

The first minute-and-a-half of “Around” seems bent on throwing off the listener (mind, this is after said listener has just sat through a five-minute instrumental). After a faded-in “ambient” synthesizer that occasionally breaks into static, there’s an intro baked out of fragments—ringing percussion, shards of guitar, a laconic bass. This in turn becomes the support of Bowie’s first verse, in which his voice, doubled by a distorted echo of himself, rambles through a series of disjunct phrases, some abruptly sinking by a fifth on the last note (“violent night“), some flat, all building to the tortured “viii-ooo-lin” that Bowie yanks across two bars and lets plummet by nearly an octave. The transition to the chorus comes without warning, the “you’ve been around” tag suddenly appearing in what at first seems to be another verse (the only cue is the now-grooving bassline).

Bowie’s performance, while not dissimilar to how he originally sang the piece, is channeling Scott Walker, the not-so-hidden muse of BTWN (we’ll get to “Nite Flights,” which will be a much-too-long look at Bowie and Walker’s three-decade conversation, towards the end of our survey). As with a few other tracks on BTWN, Bowie seems intent here on out-Walkering Walker here: the sepulchral crooning, the near-recitative top melodies, a sense of hermetic grandiosity. It’s crafting a sort of alternate-universe pop, one that speaks a dialect of pop but one which fundamentally seems cut off from its everyday conversation. “Around,” like much of the record it opened, is a strange private music in the guise of a public one.

As for Gabrels, he made his reply in 1995, refitting the original “Around” demo with some new guitar tracks, and, in a fine tit-for-tat, he replaced Bowie’s vocals in the second verse with the actor Gary Oldman (sounding a bit like Bono).

“You’ve Been Around” was played once on the first Tin Machine tour, at the opening show at The Globe, NYC, on 14 June 1989. The studio version was recorded ca. summer-autumn 1992, at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or The Power Station, NYC. Released in April 1993 on Black Tie White Noise. A remix of “Around” by Jack Dangers (Meat Beat Manifesto) was issued as the B-side of “Black Tie White Noise”; a longer edit of the remix is on the 2-CD/DVD 2003 reissue of the album. The Bowie/Oldman/Gabrels version is on Gabrels’ Sacred Squall of Now, 1995.

* BTWN opens, as we’ll soon see, with the instrumental “The Wedding,” although on the LP version, “Around” is the lead-off track, with “The Wedding” deleted for presumably space reasons (open Q: was anyone still buying new vinyl in 1993?).

** This was Gabrels’ only appearance on the record. While he’d also cut a solo for “I Feel Free,” it was wiped once Bowie recruited Mick Ronson for that track.

Top: Ed Newman, “Jolly Bunch Parade,” Treme, New Orleans, 1992.


You Belong In Rock n’ Roll

August 9, 2012

You Belong In Rock n’ Roll.
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (single mix, video).
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (Paramount City, 1991).
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (Wogan, 1991).
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (Top of the Pops, 1991).
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (Sacrée Soirée, 1991).
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (Eleva2ren, 1991).
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (live, Oy Vey Baby, 1991).

Are there any new ideas left to be discovered in rock and roll?

Bowie: In rock and roll, no. But in what you can give rock and roll, yes. I think the whole idea of talking about the feelings that you have between your mid-30s and mid-40s…there are endless experiences there. The whole weight of having gone through the apocalyptic vision of the Seventies, the greed and vanity of the Eighties: these are things that none of the younger bands knew about or experienced. So they’re just a result of it. With a band like Guns ‘n’ Roses, lyrically there’s a kind of abandon there. But abandon from what?

Alan di Perna, “Ballad of the Tin Men,” Creem, 1991.

The lead-off single of Tin Machine II, “You Belong in Rock n’ Roll” was Bowie’s most overt attempt at pop since “Never Let Me Down,” and it tanked, charting only (and poorly) in the UK, ignored by the rest of the world. Possibly inspired by U2’s “With or Without You,” it shared with the latter a bass-driven, deep-crooned verse, a sudden dynamic shift in the chorus (triggered by the title phrase) and a simple, repeating chord progression—“Rock n’ Roll” just uses the first two chords, C and G, of “With or Without You”‘s cycling C-G-Am-F. But compared to U2’s brooding religious erotica, “Rock n’ Roll” is camp trash, with Reeves Gabrels playing his guitar solos with a vibrator.*

The title suggested some kind of reckoning with the past: after the bridge-burning of Tin Machine, it seemed to be Bowie trying to align himself for a fresh decade. An old friend once said that it was never a good sign when an aging band wrote a song with “rock and roll” in the title (he was thinking of Kiss, who had just put out “God Gave Rock and Roll to You”), as it usually was a cue for gross nostalgia or base pandering. Thankfully that’s not the case here—Bowie’s “Rock n’ Roll” is too slight, too moody, too crass, although he is chasing after ghosts in it.

The guiding spirit is Marc Bolan in his prime, comparing girls to cars and mountain kings: I love the velvet hat–you know the one that caused a revolution…you got the blues in your shoes and your stockings…I’ll call you Jaguar if I may be so bold. Bowie’s come-ons in “Rock n’ Roll” are shopworn and banal by comparison: the girl (or rock itself) reminds him of “cheap streets,” she says “cheap things,” she’s got a “bad look.” It’s third-rate seduction. Bolan had known he was the prize—the come-ons were just for show, he was just peacocking for his own delight, as he’d already closed the deal. Bowie in “Rock n’ Roll” has to really work the sale, and seems to vaguely despise himself for it.

The big hook, triggered to the song’s one chord change, is “you belong in rock n’ roll…well, so do I,” a weakly Bolanesque line. Bowie’s phrasing of the last words, a slight aspiring push upward, suggests that he knows it’s a dubious claim. But what was “rock n’ roll” here? In 1990 it meant Guns ‘n’ Roses and Warrant—it was no place for some crackpot dandy like Bolan, let alone Bowie entering his high Dorian Gray period. Bowie had never been reverent about rock music; he’d always questioned whatever transcendence it offered. In his Ziggy Stardust days, he referred to rock as an aging tart. Twenty years on, he felt the same, although now he was in a serious hard “rock n’ roll” band whose players sometimes acted as if they were the music’s last hope—it’s tempting to call “Rock n’ Roll” Bowie’s subconscious rejection of Tin Machine. In the video for “Rock n’ Roll,” Bowie preened into the mirror, wriggling out of his garish lime-green jacket while he sang “so do I”; on stage, he sometimes mimed slapping on foundation.

But the track’s not mere parody, either. As with Bolan’s influence, you can hear Bowie trying to recall an old language, trying to ground himself again in a music that had once worked for him. There’s a trace of Buddy Holly in how Bowie toys with his phrases, hollowing out vowels, stretching a small word to fill the space of three: luh-uh-huh-hove, say-uh-hay-hay. (On the Paradise City performance, Bowie sings the second verse in a quasi-American accent). So it’s fitting that it ends back at the mirror. When Bowie builds up to the climax, he finally imitates “Bowie,” the imperious, archangel-voiced Bowie of pop memory: on fire! on FIRE! on FIRE! on FIIIHAH!

Though its rhythm track—a rumbling Tony Sales bassline, flourishes of acoustic guitar, a tight Hunt Sales playing a swinging kick drum pattern—was nailed down in the Sydney sessions, “Rock n’ Roll” was one of the tracks that Gabrels wouldn’t leave alone. He cut guitar overdub after overdub while Bowie was on his world tour in 1990. By the time Tin Machine II was mixed in spring 1991, “Rock n’ Roll” had ballooned to a 56-track recording, the majority of which was taken up with Gabrels’ bleats, buzzes and whines.

Gabrels had been obsessed with Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine, and as “Rock n’ Roll” was “basically a bass song, I wanted to lay in some industrial stuff against it,” he said. Gabrels started by vibrating an electric razor against his guitar strings but found he wanted something with variable speeds, so that he could better tune it. So Gabrels and his guitar tech went out to a few Sydney sex shops and came back with a selection of vibrators. Gabrels became a fan—“You can use [a vibrator] as a sound source and also as a string driver by laying it against the bridge,” he said—as did Bowie, who said he expected to soon go into a music store and find rows of vibrators with effects pedals and slides: an inspired vision of commerce that sadly never came to be.

That said, Gabrels’ main solo, the eight-bar fill between refrain and verse, is Gabrels at his most restrained, offering just a series of steadily-rising chords, while his various vibrator-guitar dubs work as mood colors in the mix rather than overwhelming the track. The final mix of “Rock n’ Roll” sounded good—Tony Sales’ backing vocals giving tension to Bowie’s murmurings, the handclaps, the low-mixed saxophone—but in the fall of 1991, no one wanted to hear it. Perhaps it was a minor cultural exhaustion with Bowie: it was the first single after the Sound + Vision tour/retrospective. The Bowie of the past was far too strong a presence, the Bowie of the present seemed compromised and empty. “Rock n’ Roll” was a pretender, soon sent packing.

Recorded ca. September-October 1989, Studios 301, Sydney, with overdubs in 1990 and March 1991. Released as a single in August 1991 (LONCD 305, c/w “Amlapura (Indonesian version), #33 UK). There was also a limited edition single in a metal box. To produce it, according to Pegg, the label had to purchase used tins from the US Navy. The band played or lip-synched “Rock n’ Roll” on Denmark’s Eleva2ren, France’s Sacree Soiree and the UK’s Wogan, TOTP and Paramount City, generating weak sales and minor controversy because of Gabrels’ vibrators. (Weirdly, the Machine apparently didn’t play “Rock n’ Roll” in their big US TV promotion, ABC In Concert.) Played throughout the 1991-92 tour, with a version from Chicago, 7 December 1991, used as the closing track on Oy Vey Baby.

* Gabrels told Musician that his touring vibrators were “a 4″ Ladyfinger and an 8″ variable speed, with a Panasonic electric razor as backup.”

Top: Michel Piccoli and Emmanuelle Béart, La Belle Noiseuse (Rivette, 1991).


Needles on the Beach

July 9, 2012

Needles on the Beach.

Though Tin Machine II wound up a stitched-together, incoherent record, it began with Bowie and Reeves Gabrels working in a general theme: life in the rotten South Pacific. Drawing from Bowie’s recent vacation in Java and an earlier trip to Borneo with Iggy Pop (see “Tumble and Twirl”), Sara Terry’s (Gabrels’ wife) work covering child prostitution in Thailand and the Machine’s stay in Sydney while recording, a recurring image was a spoiled tropical paradise, whether corrupted by the West or by the eternal human verities of greed and lust. A few of these songs—“Shopping for Girls” and “Amlapura”—made it onto the final record, but another variation on the theme, the Machine’s attempt at a jaundiced surf music, was ultimately shelved.

The instrumental “Needles on the Beach,” which finally appeared on a “surfbilly” compilation on a Boston indie label in 1994 (arguably the most obscure official release in the Bowie catalog), got its title from Gabrels noticing that the tide on Bondi Beach would often bring in used syringes. There’s a musical joke baked into the song as well, as some of its chord changes are from Jimi Hendrix’s psychedelic surf track “Third Stone from the Sun”—specifically the progression when Hendrix, in the original recording, murmurs “to you I shall put an end, then you’ll never hear surf music again.”*

A set of alternating eight-bar runs, “Needles” has a once-repeated structure of variation 1 (Gabrels’ guitar riff (similar to the opening of Hendrix’s “Third Stone”) & drum shuffle), variation 1, variation 2 (slightly altered guitar riff and straight-on drums), variation 1, and variation 3 (three-chord descending phrase by Gabrels). On the released version, “Needles” is faded before the final repeat of variation 3, which ends with a full close and a Gabrels pick slide, à la Dick Dale. Either Bowie or Kevin Armstrong plays a dreamy rhythm guitar that’s barely audible in the released mix.

Recorded ca. September-October 1989, 301 Studios, Sydney. Released in October 1994 on Beyond the Beach. Thanks: Ian McDuffie.

* Allegedly a buck-up message intended for Dick Dale, who had colon cancer at the time.

Top: Ross Giblin, “Jerry Nepia and Rajee Patel surfing at Titahi Bay [New Zealand], 15 January 1991.” From the Alexander Turnbull Library.


Sacrifice Yourself

June 11, 2012

Sacrifice Yourself.
Sacrifice Yourself (live, 1991).

Although written by Bowie and the Sales brothers, “Sacrifice Yourself” is Reeves Gabrels’ show, the latter offering a performance as loud as it’s merciless and unprincipled. Given a slightly unusual chord structure* and a punishing tempo to work with, Gabrels begins by imitating an air-raid siren (veering from left to right speaker); he defaces the opening guitar riff with a wailing overdub, mocks Bowie’s two-note chorus melody with a set of exuberant guitar lines and, two minutes in, knocks the track down and throttles its life out.

Beneath the din (Hunt Sales fills whatever few spaces Gabrels has left open) is a three-verse Bowie lyric with some affinities to “I Can’t Read,” as its subject is a similar spent-out artist figure who’s become respectable, rich and empty, one who’s fumbling around for any sort of inspiration—God, or an eroticized death—which the chorus suggests isn’t worth it. Surprise yourself: keep yourself alive isn’t the most inspirational wisdom, but in a diminished, broken time as the Tin Machine period, it’s some form of solace. The last verse ends with a quote from “Suffragette City” and a collective moan.

Recorded ca. August 1988 at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or Compass Point Studios, Nassau, Bahamas, ca. November-December 1988. While it was initially downplayed—“Sacrifice Yourself” didn’t make the LP’s sequencing and was issued as a B-side to “Under the God”—it became a favorite of Tin Machine’s live sets.

* As “Sacrifice Yourself” is in A major, the B chord (II) here ought to be a B minor chord (ii). Instead, by becoming a major chord, B serves as the secondary dominant: the V chord of A major’s V chord (E, in this case). So much of the song, in both verse and chorus, is a struggle between secondary dominant and dominant (B and E): essentially a war between two equally-matched powers.

Top: Charles Peterson, “Nirvana, Bainbridge Island, 1988.”


The King of Stamford Hill

April 19, 2012

The King of Stamford Hill.

If you do what I do—play out of tune, stretch time signatures, make noise—people assume you’re an idiot. Because no one would want to play out of tune, right? So I needed the firepower to say, “OK, this is what I could do if I wanted to wear a Lacoste shirt and chinos like you.” If I wanted to play on baked bean commercials, that’s what I’d do. I’m already past that. I’m working on my vision, dammit. It might not be a good one, but it’s mine.

Reeves Gabrels, 2000.

Has anyone ever had a hard word to say about Mick Ronson? Who has ever knocked Carlos Alomar? Even Tony Visconti remains generally unimpeachable. Not so Reeves Gabrels, the last major Bowie collaborator, who has never shaken the reputation in some quarters as being a garish usurper.

Gabrels worked with Bowie, off and on, for eleven years: his tenure is nearly as long as Alomar’s and Gabrels’ influence on Bowie’s work is arguably greater. No other Bowie “sideman” co-wrote two entire records with him (Earthling and Hours). Gabrels embodied Bowie’s desperate Nineties, whether dressed in Prada suits or kilts and boas. Brought in as a professional agitator, he stayed on throughout the decade, shrouding Bowie albums in noise, eviscerating classic Bowie guitar riffs on stage. For solos, he played his custom-made guitars with a vibrator, he smeared cake icing on their strings. Sometimes he’d unplug his guitar and screech together a solo via the jackplugs.

He was outrageous, he was indulgent, he was loud, he was vital, he was tasteless. He was Bowie’s liberated id, throwing sonic tantrums on stage; he was Bowie’s cold-blooded intelligence service, forever keeping abreast of the trends. He saved Bowie from a life of middle-aged mediocrity, he made Bowie look ridiculous. More than anything else, he was an unknown: his future bandmates the Sales brothers, during the first Tin Machine rehearsals, wondered aloud who the hell the guitarist was. Gabrels was indisputably a latecomer, and there’s always a measure of scorn reserved for those who arrive when the show’s past its prime (see Tara King or John Major). But Gabrels took pride in where he fell. Irreverent, aggressively dedicated to his sonic obsessions, he acted like a man who had no sense of, no use for, history.

In Bowie’s pre-Tin Machine work, Gabrels’ closest analogue is Robert Fripp, whose skronking guitar work on”Fashion” can seem a curtain-raiser for the Gabrels years. The comments for that entry demonstrate how Fripp’s playing on “Fashion” can still irritate, three decades on. Did the guitar noisily ruin the track, or did it give it frisson, turning a basic dance-rock song into something more disturbing, with bite and piss? It’s the fundamental question of the Gabrels era.

Gabrels was born on Staten Island, NYC, in 1956. His father worked on tugboats, his mother was a typist. While self-taught on the guitar, Gabrels considered himself a visual artist, enrolling in the Parsons School of Design in 1974. Studying painting just made him want to play music. So he left Parsons for Berklee, then dropped out in 1981 to make a go at being in a rock band.

It was the height of Boston’s punk scene, the era of The Neighborhoods, La Peste, the Lyres, the Nervous EatersMission of Burma, The Dark, Rubber Rodeo (Gabrels would play in editions of the latter two). It was that rare bird, a viable local scene, in which Boston indie musicians could hack out a meager living by playing a solid regional circuit which included the still-standing Paradise or the late, lamented Rathskeller, which my old university conquered and razed, then built a swank hotel over its bones.

Gabrels soon got notice for his drive to constantly, radically alter his guitar’s tone. He recalled how once he was rehearsing in someone’s kitchen when electromagnetic interference from the refrigerator motor began channeling through his Stratocaster’s pickups and chorus pedal. It was a revelation. Another time in 1984, opening for the Neighborhoods, Gabrels had forgotten most of his gear except for a single distortion pedal, and spent his set wringing dissonant tones from his guitar via pull-offs and distorted harmonics. His bass player complimented him afterward for his new effects and harmonizer programs. (“I thought, “Why am I carrying all this stuff around if I can fool my own bass player without it?” Gabrels recalled in 2000.)

Gabrels began to favor newer-make guitars, arguing that when a guitarist plays a Fender or a Strat, it’s a constant battle not to be mired in nostalgia. (“Playing instruments that don’t have cliches defined on them keeps me from playing licks from 1952,” he once said). In the late Eighties, Gabrels’ main guitar was the “headless” Steinberger, while in the Nineties he favored the lightweight Parker Fly.

So Bowie saw Gabrels as an advocate of the New, a man apparently oblivious to musical history and to “good taste,” and at times seemingly disinterested in the interplay of a band. As he would with the Sales brothers’ truculence and lack of nuance, Bowie considered Gabrels a raw, disruptive force that he could channel. Bowie wasn’t looking to form a band as much as he wanted a set of inspired, violent competitors.

Gabrels met Bowie on the American leg of the Glass Spider tour. Gabrels’ wife, Sara Terry, was a journalist at the Christian Science Monitor. After writing a grueling series of articles about child prostitution, she needed a break and so became Bowie’s press agent for a few months. Gabrels accompanied her on the tour, and Bowie came to enjoy his company. Though Gabrels had been in a Bowie cover band in high school, and while only a few months before Glass Spider he’d played in the Bowie-besotted band Life on Earth, he didn’t even tell Bowie that he played music. Instead he kept Bowie’s magpie mind occupied, whether arguing about painters or watching Fantasy Island with the sound switched off so that Bowie and Gabrels could make up their own dialogue.

Bowie only learned that Gabrels was a guitarist when, at the end of the US leg of the tour, a departing Terry (she and Gabrels were moving to London) handed him a cassette compilation of Gabrels’ various Boston bands. Back home in Switzerland after the end of the tour, Bowie found the tape in a coat pocket, played it and liked what he heard. He began recommending Gabrels for session work, setting him up with Alan Winstanley, who used Gabrels on Sandie Shaw’s Hello Angel and had him play sitar and mandolin on a reunited Deaf School album. And one afternoon in May 1988, Gabrels came home after having walked around London pasting up flyers for one of his few regular sources of income, guitar lessons, and got a phone call from Bowie. He naturally assumed it was a gag until Bowie mentioned Fantasy Island.

Bowie had agreed to be part of a La La La Human Steps dance routine at the ICA in London and to re-record “Look Back In Anger” for the backing music. He’d been listening to Glenn Branca and Sonic Youth and wanted his remade “Anger” to sound as though it had been carved out of a wall of guitars. While Bowie had already recruited his usual go-to team of Kevin Armstrong and Erdal Kizilcay, he wanted a thicker, more violent, massed guitar assault. He invited Gabrels to come out to Switzerland and work on the revision.

As he had with Nile Rodgers a half-decade before, Bowie, once Gabrels arrived at his house in Switzerland, gave him a walking inventory of his current obsessions. These now included: a yen for loud guitar music (Hendrix and Zeppelin bootlegs, Branca and his various offshoots, electric bluesmen like Buddy Guy, and Bowie’s new love, the Pixies); a gorgeous, decadent cookbook co-authored by Salvador Dali and his wife Gala;  and heaps of books on medieval and deconstructivist architecture (the latter had a then-contemporary exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art). Bowie rattled on about flying buttresses and what he considered their descendants, the exposed structures of the likes of Centre Pompidou, and tied this to the “cathedrals of sound” that he heard in Branca and Sonic Youth. In Gabrels’ playing, Bowie said he found something similar—guitar solos that were ornamental, not fitting properly into the harmonics and melody of a song, but still being essential to the song’s support, along with a fascination with breaking down a guitar’s tones into the discrete elements of amplified sound.

Gabrels wound up staying in Montreux for weeks, and he returned after the Bowie/Human Steps “Look Back in Anger” in July 1988 (Bowie would perform the routine once more in the US, in September). He and Bowie drove down to Mountain Studios every morning, worked on demos and sounded out ideas, then went home for dinner and Fawlty Towers. Gabrels had no ties to Bowie’s past, had no connection with EMI, and had seemed disinterested in music when Bowie first met him. He was the first collaborator who Bowie had known as a friend first. So Bowie confided in him. He was lost. He felt obligated to write hits but no longer had the knack for it: he was already regretting Never Let Me Down. He couldn’t imagine ever putting himself through another tour again. He was considering getting out of the game entirely.

Gabrels’ response was essentially: why do you have be in the game at all? You’re David Bowie. Find something that interests you, then go with it. Bowie had loved Steven Berkoff’s play West, which had premiered in London in 1983. A story of a Hackney gang leader who, to avenge a slaying of one of his crew, agrees to take on a rival thug from Hoxton in hand-to-hand combat, West was part of the decade’s fascination with London thugs, from Bob Hoskins’ mob boss in The Long Good Friday to Terence Stamp’s sardonic “grass” in The Hit, from the renewed fascination with the Kray Twins to Alan Clarke’s soccer hooligan study The Firm.

Bowie had considered adapting West as a musical, but thought the material was too obscure. EMI had made it clear there wouldn’t be another Baal on their dime. Who cares if only a few people like it? Gabrels responded. So Bowie and Gabrels began on a few prospective West-inspired songs. One, “Bus Stop,” would be reworked for Tin Machine. Another was a musical version of the gangleader’s climactic fight speech: “The King of Stamford Hill.” Bowie sang it as a cock-crow from a despot, but also with anger and desperation. The core theme of West was spoken by the King’s mother: “not to fight was to give in.” The choice was blood and possible humiliation, or a second-class life calling someone else’s tune.

While it’s unknown how “Stamford Hill” originally sounded, as Gabrels re-recorded all the guitar tracks when he used it on his first solo album in 1995, Bowie’s vocal (taken from the demo) is a vulgar, barely comprehensible garble (Berkoff had some of his characters speak a florid “Shakespearean Cockney”). He begins by walking his turf in Hackney, taking in the sewage. “Smells like DAY-sies,” he sniffs, but his mind’s on his rival. “Ain’t it fucking CUR-EE-OUS some other cunts’ll TRY to DITCH the KING.” A pounding, screaming refrain follows: GONNA BUILD AN ARMY. MARCH ‘EM TO THE MARSHES…SOMEONE’S GONNA LOSE HIS POXY FACE!

It was unreleasable, of course: EMI would have blanched. But Bowie took audible delight in his Mockney accent and savored the prospect of lurid violence. He sounded alive again, even in play-acting the thug. It was a scheme at last. Now all he had to do was build an army.

“King of Stamford Hill” was recorded in Mountain Studios, Montreux, ca. July 1988 (Bowie vocals) and completed by Gabrels at Playtime Studios, Boston, 1995. With Gary Oldman providing “running commentary” and Matt Gruenberg (bass) and Milt Sutton (drums).  On the out-of-print Sacred Squall of Now. (My thanks to Ian McDuffie).

Sources for Gabrels’ early years: Trynka and Buckley, as always, along with a book that’s going to be of great help going forward, Dave Thompson’s Hallo Spaceboy: The Rebirth of David Bowie. Gabrels’ quotes are generally from interviews he gave with Guitar Player (1993), Guitar (2000) and Spin (1989).

Top: Chris Dorley-Brown, “Squatters evicted, Stamford Hill estate,” March 1988; Reeves Gabrels, 1989 (Guitar Player); Gary Oldman in Clarke’s The Firm, 1989.