Reissues: Conversation Piece

January 26, 2016

69paris

One of the few Sixties Bowie songs to make the reader top 100 song poll, “Conversation Piece” was one of DB’s “lost gems,” a B-side never compiled until the Ryko Space Oddity reissue in 1990. But is it finally starting to come into its own?

This entry isn’t that different from the book revision: in the latter, there’s more on the arrangement, the rather inept musical breakdown offered here is corrected, and more attention is paid to the remake, to which I give short shrift here. Likely the only piece of rock criticism to open with a quote from the 2nd president of the U.S.

Originally posted November 23, 2009: “Conversation Piece.”

Conversation Piece (1969 demo).
Conversation Piece.
Conversation Piece (Toy remake, 2000).


[The poor man] feels himself out of the sight of others, groping in the dark. Mankind take no notice of him. He rambles and wanders unheeded. In the midst of a crowd, at church, in the market, at a play, at an execution, or coronation: he is in as much obscurity as he would be in a garret or cellar. He is not disapproved, censured or reproached; he is only not seen.

John Adams, Discourses on Davila.

I get lonesome right in the middle of a crowd.

Elvis Presley.

There have been few songs written about academics, whether tenured or failed. All that comes to mind are REM’s “Sad Professor” and this one, and “Conversation Piece” may not be about an academic at all. An independent scholar, let’s say—a shabby young man with an old man’s habits, who lives above an Austrian grocer: his rug is scattered with the pages of unpublished essays, and he spends his time wandering the streets begrudging life. He may throw himself off a bridge at song’s end.

“Conversation Piece” was Bowie’s most recent composition when he made a demo tape in April 1969 (John Hutchinson calls it “a new one” and Bowie has to prompt him with the opening guitar chords (“G-D-G”).) It’s unlike most of the songs written in this period, which are either love ballads or self-mythical explorations, as it hearkens back to the oddball character sketches of the first Bowie LP, like “Little Bombardier” or “She’s Got Medals.” (That said, some, like Bowie’s manager Ken Pitt, have said the song is fairly autobiographical, a sketch of the frustrated composer and failed pop singer Bowie of 1968.)

Most of all, it captures well the curse of urban anonymity—its title is a cruel joke, the “conversation” only going on in the singer’s head. Once during a hard spell while living in NYC I spent a weekend almost entirely out of doors, going from shop to cafe to library, and realized at some point during it that I had talked to absolutely no one, except maybe to mutter thanks to a ticket-taker or cashier. The sense of moving among a great mass of people and feeling utterly invisible and isolated from them is almost addicting at first, and then it can just sink your soul.

It’s a fairly simple song—three meandering verses, three tight eight-bar choruses (half lyric, half wordless). For the final verse, Bowie uses a standard trick and changes key, bumping all the chords up one step (so while the third line of the verse—for example, “he often calls me down to eat“—has been C/G, it’s now D/A (“and they walk in twos and threes or more“), and so forth). To further the sense that the singer is breaking down, the last verse extends into a faster-paced section with shorter sung phrases until collapsing into the final chorus.

The studio take, recorded during the Space Oddity sessions ca. July-September 1969, was eventually released as the B-side to “The Prettiest Star” in March 1970. It’s unclear why “Conversation Piece” was left off the Space Oddity LP, as it’s stronger than most of the other cuts, and if LP time was an issue, they could’ve shaved at least three minutes off “Memory of a Free Festival” and no one would’ve wept. Over the years, it’s become many people’s favorite Bowie obscurity (Stuart Murdoch seems to have lived in this song at some point).

Bowie revived “Conversation Piece” in 2000 for his scotched LP Toy, and eventually released it on a bonus disc for his 2002 Heathen album. He sings it in a lower register and without much emotion. The flailing scholar of the original recording at least had energy in his desperation; here, all is resigned, empty despair.

Top: Pascal Grob, “Paris, 1969.”


Reissues: Changes

January 18, 2016

dc

So there’s been interest in reprinting some old entries that weren’t read much way back when. Why not start with the credo song? (see Momus’ original comment.)

This entry was substantially revised in the book, to the better (one hopes): the personal narrative got axed but there’s a more accurate and sharper analysis of the music (one hopes). Nick Drake wound up in it, and I also address the version that DB sang on with Butterfly Boucher in the early 2000s, which I find charming.

As with all of these older entries, keep in mind that if you find inaccuracies, I likely corrected them in the book. I was also snarky and glib at times, which I regret. Well, sometimes.

This piece now seems a remnant of a lost time, when I hadn’t figured out the voice of the blog yet. I still have no idea where Mark M. is these days.

Originally posted on April 6, 2010: ch-ch-ch-Changes.

Changes (demo).
Changes.
Changes (live, 1973).
Changes (live, 1974).
Changes (rehearsal, 1976).
Changes (live, 1990).
Changes (live, 1999).
Changes (live, Glastonbury, 2000).
Changes (A&E Live By Request, 2002).
Changes (live, 2002).
Changes (Ellen, 2004).
Changes (Butterfly Boucher with David Bowie, 2004).
Changes (with Mike Garson and Alicia Keys (Bowie’s last performed song), 2006.)
Changes (Cristin Milioti, Lazarus (fragment), 2015).

I’ve seen David Bowie perform only once: Hartford, in the summer of 1990. This was the “Sound and Vision” tour, whose premise was that Bowie would be playing nothing but his hits…for the last time ever. The ultimatum caused a lot of fuss at the time, though the idea that Bowie would never sing something like “Young Americans” again for the rest of his life seemed ludicrous on its face. Bowie was back to the hits again in a few years.

I went with a friend from work. It was a friendship of happenstance and convenience, one our mothers seemed to have arranged. “Mark, you like the New York Dolls—here’s the only other kid in our town who knows who they are.” Mark was two years older than I; he was cutting, brutal, handsome and drove an enormous white Ford LTD. Strangers at stoplights would challenge him to race. He once went so fast on Rt. 11, a dead-end Connecticut highway that the cops neglected, that the needle had circled around to 0 mph. [VOICE OF 2016: Or so M. said.]

On the way to the show Mark said, “All I know is, Bowie better play ‘Changes’.” Bowie opened with “Space Oddity” and went on through his basics, all except “Changes.” He went off stage. Mark sat in ominous silence. “Oh well, you know it’s the encore,” I said. Encore, no “Changes.” “Well, it’s gotta be the show-ender,” I said. Second encore, another strike-out. The house lights coming on felt like a slap. Mark drove home with an inspired recklessness, sharking the LTD across lanes. It was bleak inside the car. All Mark said during the drive was, “Why didn’t that fucker play it?! Fuck Bowie!”

I also felt at odds, the passive victim of an injustice. “Changes” was Bowie’s teenage anthem, where Bowie, usually such a cold, unknowable artist, had met us halfway: “Don’t tell them to grow up and out of it!!”. Sure, part of “Changes”‘ resonance was because lines from the second verse were the preamble to The Breakfast Club (oh you know, “these children that you spit on/as they try to change their worlds…”), but the song also still sounded current, its angst unresolved. While cut the year before I was born, “Changes” didn’t feel like a hippie leftover—it wasn’t “Both Sides Now” or “Hey Jude”; it didn’t have the clammy taste of forced nostalgia (it even seemed anti-Boomer: “Where’s your shame? You’ve left us up to our necks in it!”). While it was played regularly on the radio and even my grandmother probably would have recognized it, “Changes” felt somehow as if it had sneaked through.

Listening to the song 20 years later, I’m struck by how personal and how odd a track it is: “Changes” isn’t far removed from “Quicksand” in that its lyric reads like a transcribed Bowie internal monologue. The few lines Bowie offers to make the song more universal just serve as bait, in the way the song’s hooks distract the ear from its bizarre construction. “All the Young Dudes,” by comparison, is far more solid and enduring an adolescent hymn. “Changes” is something of a cuckoo’s egg.

Did it matter, really? Not then, likely not now. As Levon Helm once sang, you take what you need and you leave the rest.

Bowie was becoming more shrewd about his work’s commercial viability, and knew he had something with “Changes”: he led off Hunky Dory with it, chose it as his first RCA single, and made it the centerpiece of his tours (er, except Hartford ’90) and greatest-hits albums. Its lyric begins as reminiscence (Bowie recalling his career’s various false starts (“a million dead-end streets”), flops, trend-hops, self-reinventions), expands into Bowie trying to fix his current state, as if plotting a cloud’s progress on a map, and finally rewards its adolescent audience with a few identification lines.

The straightforward lyric is set against a twisted harmonic backdrop (parts of the song are even “anarchic,” Wilfrid Mellers wrote [VOICE OF 2016: not really true; more in the book]). It opens with a 9-bar intro moving from Cmaj7 up to F7, and whose main hook (two of five alternating bars of piano and bass) doesn’t appear again until after the chorus, then never heard from again. (Nothing in the song is evenly-constructed: both the chorus and verses are 15 bars, while the outro (which features Bowie’s first-ever saxophone solo) is seven). Its chorus sways between 4/4, 2/4 (on “different man” or “necks in it”) and 3/4 time (starting with “time may change me”), while its chord changes are relentless (the “I can’t trace” bar has a different chord for each of three beats—C/E, G/D and F/A).

Bowie makes it go down easily by layering in multiple hooks: the stuttered “changes,” or the way Trevor Bolder’s bassline, descending a half-step with each two notes, echoes the vocal harmonies, or Rick Wakeman’s piano that serves as the chorus’ rhythmic engine.

And the chorus is the accessible part! The verses are even wilder: irregular sets of 15 bars that seem to expand and contract at whim (the second bar “waiting for, and my…” is only five sung notes, while its counterpart, the sixth bar, has six notes but just feels much longer: “got it maaaaade, it seemed the…”). Bowie delivers the lines freely, in a conversational tone, making rhymes out of shadows—the way he mates “glimpse” with “test,” or the internal rhymes of “time” and “wild.” And sometimes the lines don’t even scan—take how Bowie has to swallow the “the” in “how others must see the faker,” or sing “Strange fascination fascinating me” as “fass-ating me.” (Singing “Changes” live, especially in the last Ziggy Stardust shows of 1973, Bowie went further, reciting the verses like beat poetry over free-form piano.)

This relentless strangeness, the way the song’s structure seems intent on upsetting the lyric, and yet weaves everything together to form one of Bowie’s more melodic choruses, may lie at the root of why “Changes” has never quite become a classic rock warhorse. It promises, it flatters, it offers you back your own thoughts, but the song remains unknowable. It seems to be speaking to you, but is instead conversing with the mirror. It recreates its listeners in its own image, casts them off, reclaims them.

Changing

The studio demo (with Mick Ronson singing harmonies) and the LP cut are from June-August 1971, while “Changes” was released as Bowie’s first RCA single in January 1972 (RCA 2160). While it initially flopped both in the UK and the US, “Changes” would eventually become Bowie’s official theme song. How many TV rock retrospectives have featured a montage of Bowie, cutting from Ziggy to Soul Bowie to Thin White Duke to “Modern Love” Lothario, set to the “Changes” chorus? The literalness of it all makes you weep: look, he keeps Ch-ch-Changing! Live versions were recorded in 1972, 1973 and 1974 (the latter, from David Live, was the B-side of “Knock On Wood”), [VOICE OF 2016: and many more times, see links] while covers range from Ian McCulloch to Lindsay Lohan.

The Bowie concert would be the last time Mark and I hung out, as I went off to college a few weeks later and I never saw him again. “Changes,” in its absence, was our epitaph.