Kingdom Come

August 16, 2011

Kingdom Come (Tom Verlaine, 1979).
Kingdom Come (David Bowie, early take, rough mix, 1980).
Kingdom Come (Bowie, 1980).
Kingdom Come (Verlaine, live, ca. 1984).
Kingdom Come (Verlaine, live, 2006).

The great New York band Television broke up in 1978 due to the standard reasons: drugs, egos, money (lack of). Tom Verlaine, the band’s singer, lyricist and co-lead guitarist, soon got a record deal with Television’s label Elektra and in the fall of 1979 released his first solo album.

Bowie was a fan, calling Verlaine one of “New York’s finest new writers…I wish he had a bigger audience.” Verlaine’s solo albums, which he released at a regular clip in the ’80s, document a career that never had the audience it deserved. He was a critical middleweight. In the Village Voice “Pazz and Jop” year-end polls of the era, Verlaine’s albums consistently fall in the 20 to 30 range: he was respected, not revered or even disliked. His albums didn’t sell well and he eventually moved to the UK, where a few more people bought his records.

Verlaine had started as a poet, and his best songs were full of casual epiphanies, words like an inspired run of notes on his guitar: Broadway looked so medieval. I fell sideways laughing. I remember how the darkness doubled, I recall lightning struck itself. I’m uncertain when beauty meets abuse. She put on her boxing gloves and went to sleep. The standout on Tom Verlaine was “Kingdom Come,” his purgatorial song, with the daily business of life like being on a chain gang: breaking rocks, cutting hay, all while watched from a tower by a man with a gun. The only hope of escape is death, or judgement day, whichever comes first.*

Carlos Alomar suggested Bowie cover “Kingdom Come,” which would be the first cover on a Bowie record since Station to Station. Bowie asked Verlaine to play guitar on his song but things apparently went awry, as little, if any, Verlaine is on the final record (Robert Fripp instead does the lead guitar work on Bowie’s “Kingdom Come,” mainly keeping to the margins). Tony Visconti recalled Verlaine showing up at the Power Station looking “a little down on his luck and lugubrious.” Verlaine said he had some ideas for overdubs but needed the right sound first, so he began to try out every single amp in the studio, playing the same phrase on over 30 of them. Visconti said he and Bowie had lunch, watched TV and ultimately left Verlaine in the studio, still auditioning amps. “I don’t think we ever used a note of his playing, even if we recorded him,” Visconti wrote.

Bowie’s “Kingdom Come” is an attempt to give the song grandeur, with layers of guitars and, first in the chorus and then in the verses, call-and-response backing vocals by a quartet (Bowie, Visconti, Lynn Maitland and Chris Porter).** Some of the changes work well enough, like transferring Verlaine’s drum hook to George Murray’s bass, freeing Dennis Davis to pound on the beat while doing fills to lighten the track’s monotonous tendencies. Other changes seem either sloppy (Bowie weirdly made “the face of doom” the “voice of doom,” while still keeping the next line about the voice “shining”) or perverse, like Bowie removing the title line hook from the chorus and not singing it until 3:15 in, almost as the song starts to fade out.

It all seems like a great misreading of the song. Verlaine’s “when the kingdom comes” refrain, which Bowie discarded, is unchanging and barely melodic, suggesting the ceaseless labor of being. Instead Bowie’s vocal is an over-the-top vibrato-heavy extravagance that seems deliberately unhinged; it’s fascinating and kind of awful. Verlaine, even when he approached the cosmic, had a penitential tone in his singing, the sound of someone consistently being humbled and delighted by the oddness of life. Bowie just savages each line he sings—placing long, brutal stresses on the end of each phrase (“well i wa-haw-haw-alllked in the pouring ray-hay-hay-hayn”) building to the note-killing agonies of the bridge—“wall’s a miiiiile HII-yi-i-IIGH,” singing “hoping I’m gonna die-ay-ay-ay” like Ronnie Spector. A bewildering cover, “Kingdom Come” seems the primary inspiration for Bowie own, finer “Up the Hill Backwards.”

Recorded February 1980, Power Station, NYC, and April 1980, Good Earth Studios, London.

* Verlaine’s song reused the title of an unreleased Television song, but the two “Kingdom Comes” are otherwise unrelated.

** It was a random collection of amateur singers: Maitland was a mutual friend, while Porter was Visconti’s assistant engineer.

Top: Ann Summa, “Tom Verlaine,” ca. 1979-1980.