Heat

October 12, 2016

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Heat.

1. Mirror Contract

The photograph shows a room in a flat in West Berlin—155 Hauptstraße, Schöneberg. David Bowie lies on his side on his bed. Thirty years old, his face is that of a beautiful sleeping child.

This is Bowie-in-Berlin, in a stolen moment (or was it? was the photograph staged for possible use? I don’t know who took it). A man gone from the world, hiding in his bedroom. The headboard is a wooden sunrise. All that’s on the yellow (not electric blue) wall is an enormous canvas: Bowie’s portrait of the Japanese writer Yukio Mishima.

One of Bowie’s favorite paintings, arguably his best, it’s a severe crop of Mishima’s head, which seems carved from stone. The almond eyes have a penetrating sadness.

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Well before he first toured the country in spring 1973, Bowie had immersed in Japan (he always did the research). He loved its art, photography (Sukita), fashion (Yamamoto), food, music (Toru Takemitsu), kabuki (Bando), film (Oshima), temples, and likely more than a few of its citizens. Perhaps above all, the work of Mishima, whose last books were being translated into English in the early Seventies.

For Bowie, Mishima was the extremity of Japan’s artistic culture. He stands most openly in Bowie’s “Berlin” songs. A tributary of “Heroes” is The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, of whose sailor Mishima wrote “he was perfectly aware he would leave [his lover] in a day yet he was ready to happily die for her sake” (and recall that “sailor” was Bowie’s internet handle in the Nineties).

The sailor washes up in Lodger (“Red Sails”), an album with a Mishima counterpoint in “Fantastic Voyage” (Mishima, of the samurai: “there is dignity in serenity, there is dignity in clenched teeth and flashing eyes”; Bowie: “dignity is valuable, but our lives are valuable, too”), Mishima’s decayed angel in “Look Back in Anger” and reference in “Yassassin” (“Look at us—sun and steel“). “Because You’re Young” and “Teenage Wildlife” tick to the quickened pulse of Mishima novels like Thieves, with their passionate, beautiful young suicides.

Consider Mishima’s description of a samurai preparing for seppuku (“the sense of beauty was always connected with death…the samurai was requested to make up his face by powder or lipstick, in order to keep his face beautiful after suffering death“) and Bowie’s makeup for the last Ziggy Stardust shows.

At dinner with Arcade Fire in New York in 2005, Bowie talked of his love of Mishima’s work and said he’d been in Tokyo when Mishima died. Like many Bowie stories, it was a perfect synchrony and quite untrue: on 25 November 1970, Bowie was likely sitting at his piano in Beckenham while Mishima stabbed himself in an army commander’s office in Tokyo.

2. Entrance to the Stage

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I had a desire to turn myself into my own opposite, even in real life…I cannot be certain whether I actually created my own opposite or merely an aspect of myself which until then had been ignored.

Mishima, The Sound of Waves.

Like David Bowie, Yukio Mishima is a stage name. He was born Kimitake Hiraoka in 1925, to a family of samurai heritage. Fifty days after his birth, his formidable grandmother essentially kidnapped him, having his cradle moved into her sickroom. He lived in her house, rarely seeing his parents or siblings, until he was 12 years old.

Allowed dolls and origami for playthings, his few friends (all girls) severely vetted, he was left alone to dream and read fairy tales. When his grandmother determined she finally was going to die, she returned him to his parents. His siblings saw him as a lodger; his father considered the would-be decadent scribbler a disgrace.

During World War II, Mishima was in college, waiting to be called up for the last battles of the Pacific. “A genius destined for death,” he described his 20-year-old self. “It was a rare time when my personal nihilism and the nihilism of the age perfectly corresponded.” His memory of 1945, the year of the atom bomb and surrender, was of merciless sunlight. “The summer sunlight poured down prodigally on all creation alike. The war ended yet the deep green weeds were lit exactly as before.” A sympathetic army recruiter rejected him (Mishima had played up a recent bout of tuberculosis), so Mishima never fought. The world gained a writer who wished he’d died a soldier.

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What people regarded as a pose on my part was actually an expression of my need to assert my own true nature. And it was precisely what people regarded as my true self which was masquerade.

Mishima, Confessions of a Mask.

By the Fifties, he was Japan’s best-selling author. His books, full of death, scandal and glamour, were so popular that slang for an adulterous woman, yoromeki fujin (“lady misstep”), came from his novel A Misstepping of Virtue. He wrote and directed plays; he wrote, directed and/or starred in dozens of films (he liked playing toughs and gangsters) and once sang a film’s theme despite being tone deaf. “How wonderful to be a star!” he once said while sprawled upon a sofa backstage at one of his plays.

In whatever little compartment—as a clown (which he liked to be), as an actor, as a gangster, as an aristocrat—every little thing he tried be, he also resisted,” the writer Nobuko Albery said. To the actress Hideko Muramatsu, Mishima said human beings are made of opposite halves: love and cruelty, tenderness and hatred. “Try to express both sides at the same time. Then the personality you create will be more profoundly expressed.”

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He was a gay man who married a woman and had two children; a Europe-loving aesthete obsessed with restoring traditional Japanese culture, the sovereignty of the emperor and the Japanese army (now with nuclear weapons). His dogged, precise work schedule was that of a banker while he dressed, as his biographer John Nathan described, in a “blend of Hollywood cool and Roman drugstore cowboy,” favoring shades, loud sport shirts, black pegged trousers, gold chains. (Nathan, who went to discos with Mishima in the Sixties, said “it was like watching a studied imitation of a dancer; he always looked horrifyingly sober“). Within his Western-style house with a statue of Apollo in its garden (“my despicable symbol of the rational“), Mishima wrote on a metal desk in a small, spartan room. At parties, he’d roll on his back to do impressions of a dog treeing a cat, would imitate Marlon Brando in One-Eyed Jacks. Then he’d dismiss everyone before midnight so he could get in his writing hours.

Frail in build after the hothouse years of his childhood, driven by his shame of failing the draft (and being kidded in gay clubs about being so skinny), Mishima began exercising and weight-training until he had the body of a lean Charles Atlas. He seemed to have custom-designed each muscle as he had each room of his house.

In Sun and Steel, he wrote that he began life as nothing but mind. “I was to learn the language of the flesh, much as one might learn a foreign language.” Once he’d learned it, he knew he would lose it—the idea of his body’s inevitable decay appalled him. “I was the final heir to the tradition of Japanese beauty.”

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By the mid-Sixties, he’d set upon two goals: he would write his masterpiece and would die by ritual suicide. At first he thought these irreconcilable, but found a means to entwine them and bring them to fruition.

While writing Spring Snow, the first of his quartet of novels The Sea of Fertility, he befriended a group of nationalist students, whom he’d incorporate into his next book, Runaway Horses. He joined the Army Self-Defense Force (roughly Japan’s equivalent to the National Guard), going to boot camp at age 42. As he wrote The Temple of Dawn he created a civilian counterpart to the ASDF—-a private 90-man army called the Shield Society (he wrote their theme song). He debated left-wing students, starred as a terrorist in a film, hoped a leftist uprising would cause his civilian army to be activated.

He was playing war, which had a special excitement for him because he hadn’t been allowed to do so as a child,” his brother later said.

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On the 25th of November 1970, Mishima and four Shield Society disciples went to the ASDF headquarters and held the commander hostage. Mishima stood on the balcony to orate to the soldiers. He called on them to overthrow the Japanese government and restore the emperor; they mostly jeered him: “Stop trying to be a hero!” “We can’t act in common with fellows like you!” He’d contacted the media to be sure the news cameras were there. Returning to the commander’s office, he knelt and drove a foot-long dagger into his left side, then drew it across his abdomen. His disciple fumbled the killing blow, failing twice to decapitate him as Mishima shook in pain and gushed blood and intestines. Another would-be hero finished the job.

That morning, Mishima had left home wearing his dress uniform. On his desk was the finished manuscript of the last book of his quartet, The Decay of the Angel, and a note: “Human life is limited, but I want to live forever.”

3. Sightseer’s Misfortune

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Then we saw
Mishima’s dog
Trapped between the rocks
Blocking the waterfall

The first lines of “Heat,” the last song on Bowie’s The Next Day (the last next day), refer to a scene early in Mishima’s Spring Snow.

Mishima’s quartet is the life of Japanese man, Shigekuni Honda, and his friend, Kiyoaki Matsugae, who dies each novel to be reincarnated in the following book. Kiyoaki, dead of heartbreak and illness in 1914, is reborn as Isao, a nationalist fanatic who commits seppuku in 1931. Isao is reborn as Ying Chan, a Thai princess who barely seems to exist in the world until she no longer does (snake bite, 1952). She reincarnates as Tōru, an arrogant shipping clerk whom an aged Honda adopts in 1970.

Honda—rational, dull, slave to routine, dedicated worker, faithful husband in a loveless marriage, reader, voyeur, survivor—is the control. The experiment is his reincarnated friend, whose various lives embody passion, beauty, bravery, depravity, improvisation, a will for death. Honda “was certain he had played a part in the crystallization of Kiyoaki and Isao’s transparent lives…he was a kind of harbor and not a ship,” (The Temple of Dawn). The quartet is Mishima’s life of opposites split into two beings—one continual, one reoccurring, each needing the other.

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Spring Snow begins with Honda and Kiyoaki as teenagers on the latter’s family estate in 1912. They’re part of an entourage walking to a waterfall on a hill overlooking the manor. “It’s a beautiful day,” Honda says. “In all our lives, we may not have many like this.”

Though the hill has been sculpted to provide a gently-flowing waterfall, water is being diverted midway up the slope. A black dog that “probably had been mortally sick or wounded when it came to the stream to drink, had fallen in. The force of the current had wedged the corpse into the cleft of rocks at the top of the falls…[Honda] felt oppressed by the sight of the dog hanging dead in the falls under a bright sky only faintly flecked with cloud.” The party gives the dog a burial, an abbess leads the funeral blessing.

A water-washed corpse of an aimless dog spoils the careful designs of human beings. It harbingers Kiyoaki’s death, his subsequent deaths, and the slow corruption of his various reincarnations; it foretells the Kiyoaki estate being bombed to pieces by American planes during the war and Honda’s sad withering. It is time and doom.

Bowie uses “we”: his perspective both Honda and Kiyoaki, Mishima’s halves in a single eye. But the oppressive mood of “Heat” is far from that of Spring Snow, whose setting is a jewel of a prewar Japanese world. “Heat” is more a blasted landscape.

Referencing a Mishima novel was in keeping with how Bowie wrote much of The Next Day. His circle reduced, since the mid-2000s, to his family and a few friends, Bowie seems to have retreated into books (in a way, he lived Mishima’s childhood as an older man). So lines from Nabokov and Evelyn Waugh turn up in “I’d Rather Be High,” Carole Anne Duffy and Svetlana Alliluyeva in “How Does the Grass Grow?,” Robert Palmer (writer, not singer) in “The Next Day,” Mishima here.

It was an older type of songwriting—he’d written many of his first album’s songs by taking stories and characters from Alan Sillitoe and Keith Waterhouse. But it’s done far more obliquely and disjointedly here: a traceable reference links to an untraceable one, forming a lattice of broken images. The dog in the waterfall is the first square on the board; the rest of Bowie’s words are a series of jumps.

4. Hailstones From a Clear Sky

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So in the first verse of “Heat,” after the Mishima lines, come some purgatorial images—songs of dust, the night always falling. Then “the peacock in the snow,” suggesting a shot from Fellini’s Amarcord (a film about children growing up in a surreal Fascist Italy):

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Which in turn, as the artist Tanja Stark noted, has echoes in one of Jimmy King’s photo shoots of Bowie, from winter 2013:

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And jump-cut to Scott Walker’s “Jolson and Jones,” from 2006’s The Drift:

Gardens with fountains where peacocks had strutted
Where dead children were born

It’s not that Bowie set out a map and said, “all right, x will take you to y, from which you can find z.” He’d always worked at angles, in shadows, never spelling things out (even to himself), making the listener do the work. It was a holdover from his glam rock years. The crowd had made Ziggy Stardust; here, the crowd (no longer a crowd, but a group of solitudes listening to his songs on computers or phones) decides which path a song like “Heat” takes.

There was a parallel in the work of an old influence. The later songs of Scott Walker are full of lines with little to tether them but their being sung by the same keening voice. Walker wrote bloody histories via arcane words quarried from the OED or from art movies, set to apocalyptic music.

5. Calamity To Jane Is Calamity To John

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The exile thing is within yourself.

Scott Walker.

This blog’s gone at length into the connections between Scott Walker and David Bowie (see “Nite Flights” and “The Motel”; pack a lunch). For Walker, Bowie was of interest while he was making his 1978 album Nite Flights. For Bowie, Walker was nearly a lifelong influence.

A pop star in the Sixties, Walker spent much of his artistic life on the margins, while Bowie remained a genial mainstream presence (with some exceptions) whose secret ambitions were to be something like Scott Walker. In 1997, Bowie exhibited a painting titled The Walker Brothers Triptych. The three “brothers” were x-rays of himself, bracketed by then-collaborator Reeves Gabrels and the artist Tony Oursler. It’s a remnant of his most Walker-esque avant-garde period, the years of Outside and Modern Painters.

Then a funny thing happened in the 21st Century—the two swapped places. Bowie grew furtive, was out of the public eye; his life became speculation. Walker was, by his standards, a public figure.

Walker cut a song for a Pierce Brosnan Bond film, soundtracked Leos Carax’s Pola X, curated the Meltdown Festival in 2000, produced Pulp’s final album We Love Life, recorded a song with Bat For Lashes. He participated in a documentary about himself which he said he’s never watched, and let cameras into the studio as he recorded The Drift. Thanks to a sympathetic generation of music journalists, there are more interviews promoting The Drift and Bish Bosch than there are for the whole of his solo career pre-2006. He patiently explained what his intentions were, how the albums were recorded, how he was using his voice.

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He’s become, at 73, something of a cultural institution. While a few older fans may still harass him on the tube because “the stuff you’re doing now I fucking hate,” he’s mostly escaped at last being the glamorous Mod London Scott. Sporting skinny jeans and caps like a Williamsburg grandfather, he makes inscrutable albums that critics generally like.

Signing with 4AD in the 2000s, Walker was free to do whatever he wanted (if anything, 4AD pushed for “weird”). His late albums are as much a brand identity as the Scott albums of the Sixties. Their covers have muted colors, with photographs that could be lunar surfaces or microbe slides; tracks have titles like “Epizootics!” and “Psoriatic” and “Herod 2014.” You come to expect the sudden shifts in dynamics, esoteric percussion as primary rhythmic pulse, keening lead vocals that follow melodic lines unsupported by the backing music (or noises), abstract violence as organizing principle.

The Drift is a slasher film as art rock record. Listening to each track, you wait for the blow to strike—Satanic Donald Duck voice, horse-massacre horn, winter armies, massed strings summoned like ringwraiths. Walker’s voice is the only constant in a sequence of rapid set changes, his plaintive, haunted phrasings fall over telltale-heartbeat drums or gales of atonal strings. The Drift is the culmination of what he’d been moving towards since “The Electrician.” His masterpiece, it’s a brutalizing album to endure from start to finish.

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Bish Bosch, from 2012, works along the same lines, but there’s a growing sense of absurdity, as if the Walker project has reached its red giant phase (the title, Walker said, meant in part “job done, sorted”). Songs are longer, more ridiculous, goofier—the dog barks, fart and piss noises in “Corps de Blah” or how Walker’s ode to the fall of the Ceaucescus, “The Day the ‘Conducator’ Died,” has a lyric of multiple-choice personality test questions and ends with a snatch of “Jingle Bells.” At the same time, there’s a paring down—fewer strings, diminished basslines. “We just need to find silence and stillness to experience it,” Walker said.

Its gonzo peak is the 21-minute “SDSS14+13B (Zercon, A Flagpole Sitter),” an oblique history of a 5th Century jester dwarf, stuck on a pole, who becomes a brown dwarf star. Much of the lyric is a historical catalog of insults, from Catullan digs like “for gross Gauls, who won’t leave our sheep alone” to Don Rickles jibes like “does your face hurt? Cause it’s killing me.” What best survives the long centuries? The put-down jokes.

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After decades of frustration, Walker had found a way of working that suited him. Keeping to a tight budget (he had to record all the strings in a single day, would have to wait months for a few days of studio time to open up), he would use a small group of studio pros who knew what to expect from him, and could process his instructions quickly. Machetes as percussion? Electroshock guitar? Crickets? It got done.

His albums sold enough to justify their production costs; he got enough press. He was as free as any artist can be in the 2010s. So he could sit at home and write his dark Saturday-crossword-clue lyrics (there’s a similarity to Mishima’s prose: Mishima “knew the exact word for everything,” friends recalled, and loved archaic and obscure terms, making his books difficult to translate). Then he’d map out chords on his keyboard, get much of the song set in his head, go to the studio and have his musicians give the rest of it to him.

A workable aesthetic. One that Bowie followed as if using a blueprint when making Blackstar.

6. The First Step Toward Salvation

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Don’t confuse the stage with the dressing room.

Mishima, Forbidden Colors.

I think authors should be sought in the books they put their names to, not in the physical person who is writing or in his or her private life. Outside the texts and their expressive techniques, there is only idle gossip.

Elena Ferrante, 2015.

As I write this, on a nearby table is Mick Rock’s photo collection of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period. The book is the size of a small tombstone. It’s a public life in glam stills, whether Bowie applying makeup backstage, on a train somewhere, or out on stage. A record of Bowie assembling a grand personality, as if building a temple, then walking around in it.

The critic Donald Richie once said of his friend Mishima: “He knew one of the great and best-kept secrets of being alive is that if you behave the way you want to be, you will become it. You become who you are by practicing it and, little by little, you will turn into who you want to be.”

Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period was him rigging himself into being a star. For the rest of his life, he’d tear down the stage dressing and do it again, and again. It wasn’t the way of Mishima, who’d spent the whole of his life building to his suicidal climax. His books, films, plays, interviews, actions feel aligned in a single rising movement, a unified performance, all his halves fusing to form the man standing on the balcony in 1970. When he killed himself, the Japanese were stunned; he had acted. “Mishima has gone and actually done what these rightists only talk about,” a Japanese policeman told journalists. “And it is not only the rightists who are stirred. Here in Japan, there must be thousands of frustrated people. They have no outlet for their pent‐up feelings.”

Mishima doing karate, practicing kendo, flying in subsonic aircraft, plotting revolutions, gutting himself, making sure the camera caught his right profile. For Bowie, he existed as image: heat and light, sun and steel. By contrast, there was Scott Walker, hiding in London studios, having drummers thwack sides of meat. Existing, as he had since the early Walker Brothers singles, as voice, as form without being, artist without biography. “I’m just trying to be a person singing without any personality or anything else particularly,” Walker said.

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‘A rare outcry
makes you lead
a larger life’

Scott Walker, “Cossacks Are

In 1982, in the months before he made Let’s Dance, Bowie starred in Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, directed by Nagisa Oshima. Oshima had been Mishima’s leftist political rival in the Sixties. Bowie said he once saw a TV interview in which the two fervently argued with each other for what boiled down to the same ideals. “I qualify that by saying that the Japanese left and right are quite different from Western ideas of left and right, where it is estranged left and estranged right,” Bowie said in 1983. “In Japan both would have probably have roots in the same source than they might have over here. They both say, let’s stay Japanese. And when you’ve got that, you’re almost cancelling out everything else!”

In Mr. Lawrence, Oshima cast the musician Ryuichi Sakamoto as Captain Yonoi, head of a World War II prison camp for British soldiers. Sakamoto essentially plays Mishima (call the movie a battle for aesthetic supremacy between Bowie and Mishima, a war fought via actors). Yonoi is a pop star out of time, obsessed with his own honor and Bowie’s character, the prisoner of war Jack Celliers; he’s consumed by Celliers’ blond purity, his beauty, his refusal to obey. Both characters are driven by past shames: Celliers’ betrayal of his younger brother, Yonoi failing to die honorably after the failure of a coup he participated in.

At the film’s climax, to prevent the POW commander from being executed, Celliers breaks ranks and walks up to Yonoi, kissing him on both cheeks. Yonoi, outraged and in love, can’t act. He collapses in disgrace. Celliers is killed by being buried alive; Yonoi is executed at the end of the war, perhaps with the lock of hair he’d cut from Celliers still in his pocket.

7. The False Account and the True

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With its austere F-sharp major key, “Heat” seems like an outpost when compared to the rest of its loud, compressed album. It seems to play the curtain-closing role that “Bring Me the Disco King” did on Reality.

It’s a mix of Walker tropes. The usual “Electrician” moods, the Climate of Hunter fretless bass (Gail Ann Dorsey, playing an instrument she was unfamiliar with), the blurred instrumentation and semitonal shifts in melody and chords. The latter’s been a Walker trait since the Sixties—his hope of making “new chords” by binding contrasting tones together, strings hovering between tones.

The chord structure of “Heat” is sparse: a long stay on the home F# chord, then moving to the IV chord (B major, “songs of dust”) to a D major refrain (“I tell myself”); it’s a shift between E and F# for the coda (“I am a seer..”). But the F# chord shades, sometimes every two bars, to an alteration with a flattened fifth (so where an F# chord is F#-A#-C#, here it’s F#-A#-C). It creates tension throughout the track; it’s as if a landscape is being shrouded in mist, then uncovered.

Bowie sings a handful of notes, making pawn’s moves (rising only by second or third intervals). He does this often on The Next Day, hunkering down on a few notes instead of writing his usual octave-spanning lines, as if unwilling to stray out of his confines. A movement repeats like Morse code: a two-note rise for each phrase, F# to G# (“Mi-shima’s dog,” “tell my-self,” “love is theft“)). He only moves to a third note to close a section, whether circularly (“blocking the water-fall” is F#-G#-F#) or ambiguously (“pea-cock in the snow” ends on an A note).

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The arrangement clouds things further. The rhythm is a brusque acoustic guitar (Bowie?), the drums embellish (cymbals hiss on the chord changes), Dorsey’s bass is a softly persistent querying voice. Despite Bowie’s dominant position in the mix, the background—meshes of keyboards that hold on a wavering chord, guitars making solitary gestures, vocal loops, wary strings that finally burst into flight in the coda—is as much central to the track.

And while Walker is there in “Heat,” it’s a frozen conception of him. This is still the Scott of “It’s Raining Today” and “Nite Flights,” not the man howling and laughing on his latter records. The 21st Century’s Walker doesn’t exist here. Much of The Next Day is Bowie assessing his past, “sampling” it, playing cut-up with it. He does the same to Walker here—“Heat” feels like the end of a long admiration. A man finally packing things up, starting to look beyond the horizon.

8. Problems Spiritual and Financial

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All art is like the evening glow. It’s the burnt offering of all the best things of an era. Even the clearest logic that has long thrived in daylight is completely destroyed by the meaningless lavish explosion of color in the evening sky, even history, apparently destined to endure forever, is abruptly made aware of its own end. Beauty stands before everyone; it renders human endeavor completely futile…The present moment is all; the air is filled with a poison of color. What’s beginning? Nothing. Everything is ending.

Mishima, The Temple of Dawn.

Of “Heat,” Tony Visconti said “the lyrics are so bleak that I asked David what he was talking about. ‘Oh, it’s not about me,’ he said. None of these songs are. He’s an observer…He’s singing in his handsomest voice, a very deep, very sonorous voice. I can’t give too much away about it because honestly, I don’t know exactly what it’s about, if it’s about being in a real prison or being imprisoned in your mind.

“Tragic, Nerve, Mystification” are the last words in the list that Bowie gave the writer Rick Moody, in what would be his only public statement on The Next Day. The 42 words, in order, seem to have a structure: each three-word set corresponds to the equivalent song on the LP sequence. If this is “Heat” in miniature, the words fit. A tragic loss of nerve. Making an end by fading into the mystic.

The violence throughout The Next Day—dying men shoved in trees, high school shooters, traitors dangling from ropes—comes to a rest in “Heat,” which is a world bled free of killing as much as anything else. If The Next Day is a war album, the sad tale of how the 21st Century became more like the religious-war-plagued 16th Century than the world of Major Tom and the Saviour Machine, “Heat” is its tattered epilogue, its cease-fire.

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It has one of Bowie’s winking self-epitaphs: I am a seer, and I am a liar. A pun: a see-er, a seer. A man who only sees what’s right before him, or a prophet. And a liar, which he always claimed he was.

My father ran the prison. I’m not guilty, but you can’t believe a word I say, mind. I never wanted to be a rock star, he said in 1974. But I was there, that’s what happened.

It became a personal song in the sense of Self. Not ego-self or knowable self but in the way of whatever the Self is,” Walker once said of his song “Cue.” Who is singing “Heat”?

If much of The Next Day is a romp with his touring band, getting the gang back together for one last caper, “Heat” points to the end of Bowie’s recording life. You could call it a dock, from which he went off on a last trip.

Or a pier, which, as James Joyce once wrote, is a disappointed bridge.

9. Grand Finale

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You hear all these sounds that have just emerged since we started talking about the supernatural? That’s the sound of death … that’s what it sounds like when you’re dead … doors opening.

Bowie, “Bring Me the Disco King” video, 2003.

In 2014, Scott Walker recorded with a band, Sunn O))). The album, Soused, has the usual droning guitars and obscure lyrics but there’s something fresh in it. It’s an artist who’s been locked in his mind having to balance himself against a set of younger players (all members of Sunn O))) were born after the Scott albums were released). Though it’s a drone record, there’s a lightness of tone, a looseness of structure, that other Late Scott albums lack. It could be a one-off; it could be his future.

The same year, David Bowie was at a New York jazz club, sizing up a combo of musicians a generation or two younger than him. Donny McCaslin, after Bowie had hired his group for his new album, began exploring Bowie’s back catalog (he only knew the Eighties hits). But Bowie warned him off. “That’s old stuff. I’m into different things now.”

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In the autumn of 1970, a few months before his suicide, Yukio Mishima mounts an exhibition of himself in a department store. It ranges from photographs of his stolen childhood to a recent series of homoerotic shots in which he’s posed as St. Sebastian, pierced by arrows.

In 2008, Scott Walker helps create Drifting and Tilting at the Barbican, in which his post-Eighties songs are performed live for the first time. He doesn’t sing them, nor does he appear on stage. Instead singers inspired by him (Jarvis Cocker, Damon Albarn) perform his songs. Walker is at the sound desk, watching his music escape him. He notes that most of the audience is well under 50.

It’s 2015. David Bowie Is, a museum exhibition of David Bowie’s life, moves from Paris to Melbourne to the Netherlands. Among the works on display is the painting of Yukio Mishima that once hung on a West Berlin wall. Bowie’s last public appearance is at the opening night of his musical; he sits and watches actors sing his songs to him.

Clear the waterfall, let the stream go where it will.

Drawing our brine cart along, how briefly we live in this sad world, how fleetingly!

Mishima, Runaway Horses.

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Recorded: (backing tracks) May 2011, The Magic Shop, Soho, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop, Human Worldwide, NYC. Released: 8 March 2013, The Next Day.

Credits: (Mishima) John Nathan, Mishima-A Biography (1974); Naoki Inose, Persona: A Biography of Yukio Mishima (2013); The Strange Case of Yukio Mishima (Arena, 1985); Mishima: His Life and Literature; Philip Shabecof’s “You’ve Heard of Yukio Mishima…”from the NYT, 2 August 1970, and subsequent NYT articles after Mishima’s suicide. Of Mishima’s novels, essential works include: Confessions of a Mask (1949), Thirst For Love (1950), Forbidden Colors (1951), The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea (1963) and his last quartet: Spring Snow (1968), Runaway Horses (1969), The Temple of Dawn (1970) and The Decay of the Angel (posthumously p., 1971). The essay Sun and Steel (1968) is critical for a sense of Mishima’s philosophy. Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), a fusion of Mishima’s biography and fiction, is worth watching, as is Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence, of course! (Walker) In addition to sources listed in the previous entries (esp. No Regrets and Anthony Reynolds’ biography), I’m indebted to articles and broadcasts, 1966-2016, that I’ve listed here. (Walker, DB and “Heat”) ‘Crayon to Crayon,’ as always. Tanja Stark’s “Confronting Bowie’s Mysterious Corpses,” collected in Exploring David Bowie, is a compelling analysis of mortality in Bowie’s work.

For Kevin Smith, 1972-2016. Tell me all about it on the next bardo, Kev. For Rahawa, defeater of mountains.

Photos inc.: 1. DB, 1977 (unknown photog.); Johannes Eisele, “David Bowie Is… exhibit, Martin-Gropius-Bau museum in Berlin,” 2014; 3. Jeff Wall, After ‘Spring Snow’, by Yukio Mishima, chapter 34 (2000-2005); 4:  King, 2013; Amarcord (Fellini, 1973). All DB shots: King, 2013; 8: Mishima, 1968. 9: Bowie: self-portrait “D Head V,” ca. 1995; “Walker Brothers Triptych” 1996,”Head of Mishima” 1977.

Sunday

May 12, 2014

01amciti

Sunday.
Sunday (Visconti mix).
Sunday (Moby remix).
Sunday (live, Meltdown Festival, 2002).
Sunday (live, 2002).
Sunday (live, 2003).
Sunday (live, 2004).
Sunday (live, 2004).

It’s long been Bowie’s habit to rewrite his albums in the press once he’s made them. The Ziggy Stardust “storyline” wasn’t cooked up until 1973, when Bowie described it to William S. Burroughs. So in 2002, a year after having composed the songs on Heathen, Bowie began giving them a narrative structure. Some of Heathen was his version of Richard Strauss’ Four Last Songs, or so he claimed.

There’s a certain sense of universality in those songs that Strauss wrote at the end of his life when he was 84…they’re the most terribly romantic, sad, poignant pieces that I think have ever been written,” he told Interview in 2002. “I kind of used them as a template.” (His preferred recording was Gundula Janowitz‘s performance (with Herbert von Karajan, 1973), which he described as “ach[ing] with love for a life that is quietly fading.”)

His own Four Last Songs were the album’s bookends, “Sunday” and “Heathen (The Rays),” and two mid-sequenced songs, “5:15 The Angels Have Gone” and “I Would Be Your Slave.” These were end-of-life musings, thoughts on death, parceled regrets, “hard questions.” He’d reached the point, he told Interview‘s Ingrid Sischy, where he felt was no longer growing. “Especially in one’s mid-fifties, you’re very aware that that’s the moment you have to leave off the idea of being young. You’ve got to let it go.” In another interview he said mid-life was a time of no longer becoming, but simply being.

For a man who’d staked his life on continually becoming, wasn’t this state essentially death? Bowie’s Four Last Songs are barren landscapes, a set of departure lounges, wings of abandoned houses, empty train stations, beaches without footprints.

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Of course, the grand old man persona of Heathen was as much a fictive personality as Ziggy Stardust had been. Recall that Bowie was only 54—an age when things start to get creaky and the weight of memory is more of a burden, but generally an age still fat in the middle of life. There’s far more pain, loss, resignation, bewilderment and brutal aging to come (my dear acerbic great-aunt, at age 80 or so, once sighed wistfully to me: “ah, to be 50 again!”).

Bowie was playing with our perception of how pop stars age in dog years: if you’ve been kicking around for 20 years (or nearly 40, in his case) in pop music, you might as well be Methuselah. So if the world saw him as an old man, he’d play the old man: someone so bogged with life that he can barely move.

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Richard Strauss was a true old man, one who’d lived too long.

American soldiers driving through Bavaria days after Hitler’s death, looking for a house to commandeer as a base of operations, came upon a stately villa in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. An ancient man strode from the front door, announced he was Richard Strauss, composer of Der Rosenkavalier and Salome, and told them to leave. Kind fate allotted one of the soldiers to be a classical musician, who gave Strauss the cover of deference and defused any chance that Strauss would’ve been hauled into a collaborators’ prison. Soon enough, troops had spilled into Strauss’ villa, asking “Hey Maestro! Who’s this guy?” when seeing a bust of Beethoven. Classical Germany fell to gum-cracking Americans at last.

By now, the 20th Century seemed a colossal joke to Strauss. Born in 1864 in a Bavaria still ruled by its mad emperor, Strauss lived through Bavaria’s absorption into grey Prussia to form Germany, the whirling spree of Kaiser Wilhelm’s lost empire, four years of catastrophic war, Germany’s subsequent fall into fascism, genocide and thuggery (which Strauss, to his great discredit, partly condoned), another horrific war and now, in 1945, utter defeat. He would even see the carving up of Germany into capitalist and Communist halves. “I have outlived even myself,” he said in 1949, upon which he finally died.

Strauss didn’t intend his Four Last Songs as a last statement: the title wasn’t his, for one thing. In 1948 Strauss scored three Hermann Hesse poems and one by Joseph von Eichendorff. Only after his death, when the four songs were grouped as a single work and re-sequenced by Ernst Roth, did the songs become his Four Last.* But the songs obviously shared a sense of reminiscence (they were scored for soprano, as if Strauss was writing songs for the memory of his wife’s singing voice) and cyclicality: in one, he quoted from a tone poem of his youth, Tod und Verklärung.

And as much as the songs spoke of resignation, death and transformation, there was a thick vein of defiance in the music. Their beauty could be smothering (Hesse, hearing Strauss’ adaptations of his poems, said they “were full of well-crafted beauty but lacking in core, merely an end to themselves.”), their vocal lines cathedrals to a woman’s voice, their brass-and strings orchestration that of a royal court. The songs proposed that the mad century had never happened: it was Strauss willing away history in the last of his music.  The Songswere so potent as to render the idea of relevance irrelevant,” Alex Ross wrote in 1999. “They destroyed, single-handedly, the modernist imperative of progress—the notion that music must always be made new. Strauss, in fact, had gone neither forward nor backward…A progressive had become a reactionary by standing absolutely still.

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Bowie was looking out a window of Allaire Studios early one July morning in 2001, drinking his first cup of coffee. He saw two deer grazing on the mountainside and beyond them, a car slowly passing along the Ashokan Reservoir to the south. “There was something so still and primal about what I was looking at outside,” he recalled. He began to weep, began to write.

What had the image triggered? Not simply the idea of a depeopled world, one left to the deer and the crows to forage. The man or woman in the car was part of it. Were they, for a moment, in harmony with the plants and animals, or were they in the usual role of oblivious despoiler? Or did the view suggest how the world’s oblivious to our comings and goings? We depart from life one morning and the animals take no notice, the sun keeps on its paces. The slight absurdity of a man in a luxurious recording studio built in a plutocrat’s mansion weeping over the thought.

“Sunday” begins on a remote E-flat minor chord, and over a long, looping vine of a verse it tentatively grounds itself in A-flat minor. There are few voices at first: a treated guitar playing the same birdsong figure again and again; the occasional bass note, like a man quietly sounding the depth of a wall; a bed of voices to cushion the lead vocal and establish the chords, rising and ebbing in volume with each loop (the vocals were mainly Tony Visconti, who taught himself to sing “two notes at once after singing Tuvan and Mongolian music”).

The lead voice could be a man who’s survived an apocalypse, offering instructions to fellow foragers. Watch out for drifters and cars (an echo of the Mekons’ “Trouble Down South,” with its England as an American war zone: look out for wires…stay underground). It’s equally the voice of an animal, one making its way through a world ruled by indifferent nature and malicious homo sapiens. Watch for shafts of light on the road: they mean death. Crawl under the bracken for safety.** Run when the rain lessens. Follow the sun (where the heat goes). Man and animal are no different. The world is no place for either of them. A song from decades before plays in an empty room: when the rich die last, like the rabbits running...

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Yet just as “Sunday” seems lost in its meander of a verse, the song gathers force. There’s movement. An elevation to F minor; the guitar is loosed from its trap; a bass drum pattern sets a floor. A paradoxical declaration: nothing has changed, everything has changed, so everything is nothing? “Nothing” is an active force: it has a beginning, it remains, it’s mutable.

The song becomes a chant. A mantra chorus of Bowie and Visconti voices is mixed right (“in your fear seek only peace…in your fear, seek only love”) while mixed left is Bowie’s lead vocal, in grand Scott Walker register, offering hints of resurrection—burning in the pyre, rising through the air, off to do it again. The associations with the fires and the smoke of the World Trade Center were unintentional, Bowie said: he’d written the lines before the attack (though he crafted the track in the studio in the months afterward). At 3:09 the track skips, resets itself.

Something has changed, though. The second verse is shorter, Bowie’s voice now harried by an electronic drum pattern. This is the trip (a lifetime), this the business we take (our souls, our baggage of dreams and fears). Then another ghost: Hush little baby, don’t you cry. You know your mother was born to die. It’s the refrain of the folkie standard of the Sixties, “All My Trials,” as sung by Joan Baez and Dave van Ronk and Nick Drake, and maybe even Bowie himself on stage with John Hutchinson and Hermione Farthingale in 1968. All my trials, Lord, soon be over.*** This world’s spent out: I’m going home. But Bowie sings that his trials will be remembered (by who?): he’s still in love with the world he’s leaving. Strauss would have approved.

His last word is a last defiance, Bowie hanging onto “chaaaaaanged” as long as he can while Matt Chamberlain roars in, brutally chastising his snare drum. Visconti’s bass is a jungle line. On stage, Bowie let his guitarists play “Sunday” out for minutes, letting his audience bask in the triumph, but on the studio version the heroics get faded out quickly, the rebirth hardly mattering. Sunday may be a day of resurrection, but night falls without fail on it.

Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 June 2002 on Heathen. There were alternate mixes by Visconti (included on the European “Everyone Says ‘Hi'” single and the Canadian “I’ve Been Waiting For You” single) and Moby (included on the 2-CD version of Heathen). The former managed to make “Sunday” into a pop song, its undercarriage now a jogging loop of “ah ah ah ah” voices a la “O Superman”; the latter was pointless.

* Strauss also orchestrated an 1894 song, Ruhe, mein Seele!, in 1948 and was working on another piece—it’s arguable he was considering the songs as discrete units (the Hesse poems as one opus number, the von Eichendorff as another, etc.) and never would have classed them as a single work.

** Probably the only time “bracken” has been used in a rock song. [edit: no, “bracken” turns up in Robyn Hitchcock’s “No, I Don’t Remember Guilford” and XTC’s “The Meeting Place” and likely others—thanks crayontocrayon & Casey W.] The phrase “under the bracken” is in D.H. Lawrence’s “A Fragment of Stained Glass” (a narrative with some similarities to Bowie’s lyric here) and Tove Jansson’s Moominpappa’s Memoirs.

*** “All My Trials”/”All My Sorrows” is a fascinating piece of American ersatz folklore. Though often claimed to have been derived from a 19th Century slave spiritual, the song is likely a cuckoo’s egg—a piece cobbled together ca. 1955, its lines a hash of cod-spirituals and John Bunyan-esque imagery over a melody nicked from a Barbadian lullaby.

Top: Catherine Opie, “Untitled #5 (Wall Street),” 2001.


The Dreamers

January 2, 2014

99paris

The Dreamers.
The Dreamers (instrumental).

Of all the closing tracks of all the Bowie albums, “The Dreamers” is the most cynical: it’s a finale as if scripted by a committee of fans. So you have Bowie in his imperious croon for essentially the entire track, dropping references to old obscurities (“Shadow Man“) and old classics (“Sweet Thing,” in the “these are the days, booooys” line) in a lyric—a sky is both “flame-filled” and “vermillion”—that comes off as a gross approximation of his old apocalyptica.

It’s an attempt to twine the two strands of ‘Hours’—video-game dark theatrics and middle-aged life laments. So “The Dreamers” is the name of Bowie’s band of musical insurrectionists in Omikron: The Nomad Soul and could be the title of some photo retrospective of the lost counterculture (although the Bertolucci movie of the same title came out after it). The song refines each strain until achieving a shining mass of dullness. Scott Walker’s in there as well, of course: the way Bowie sings “as the darken falls” is straight Climate of Hunter-era Scott. But this is the thinnest of the Bowie/Walker connections, with Walker here a parody figure, a man embodying his worst affectations (was the whole song a spoof on Walker? Bowie trying, and failing, to exorcise an old ghost?)

If you were to mount a defense of “The Dreamers,” you could offer the song’s acerbic harmonic structure, fashioned almost entirely from flat and sharp chords, and its few subtle musical cues, like the nod to T. Rex’s “Jeepster” in the bridges (and its not-so-subtle ones, like the keyboard/guitar line filched from Genesis’ “Follow You Follow Me.”) And despite generally singing as a carbon of himself, Bowie still manages some striking moments—the final runs of “dreamers” have some blood in them. I tried, but I can’t see this as anything other than a sad failure. It’s the sort of music that one would expect from an art rock singer post-fifty: a piece that relies on its audience’s sunnier memories and indulgences to make up for that fact that, to quote James Brown, Bowie’s talking loud and saying nothing.

Recorded ca. April-May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda; overdubs at Chung King Studio and/or Looking Glass Studio, NYC. There was a slightly different and slightly longer (just an extended outro) mix used on the Omikron game and later included on the 2004 ‘Hours‘ reissue.

Top: Igor Mukhin, “Paris, 1999.”


The Motel

March 6, 2013

95scott

The Motel (early mix, fragment).
The Motel.
The Motel (live, 1995).
The Motel (live, 1996).
The Motel (live, 1997).
The Motel (live, 2003).

Prologue: Eat This, Crows!

Consider two planets in the same system. One has been more favored by the sun, a rich world with a host of lesser satellites that wheel around it. The other is a smaller, less hospitable, furtive planet, which goes on long elliptical orbits, vanishing for years then appearing again in the sky without warning. Sometimes the two have been in sync, pulling on the other, eclipsing each other. But their dance is over. The larger world has stopped moving; it just hangs suspended now, having become a preservation of its better days. The lesser orb goes on its way.

In the next two months, Scott Walker will turn seventy and will release a new record, one which appears to be as weird and ominous as his other late works, while David Bowie is out of the game…

“Nite Flights”, November 2012.

He usually isn’t stuck for words. Well, he’s stuck for words these days. I don’t know where he is or what he’s doing. It’s odd, he was always around, there was always something cooking. I wish he’d make a record.

Scott Walker, on David Bowie, Mojo, December 2012.

He opened his laptop and read the morning’s collection of news about himself. Once he’d had an assistant sift through the papers and magazines and stuff thick packets of clippings into manila envelopes, delivered via courier. Now some custom-rigged alliance of Google News and other secretive algorithms did it all. It made for duller reading, he’d found. Drinking a cup of coffee, he read of a Tyrolean fashion show with an Aladdin Sane theme; of a boy, born in Elkhart, Indiana, whose parents had named him Thin White Duke (they were Dukes, her mother’s maiden name was White, but the child was ten pounds, six ounces). Another entry from the ridiculous blog. A long one this time: well, they tended towards the gaseous, didn’t they?

He finished reading, lingering over the last paragraphs, and let out a laugh with some violence in it. He fished into the pocket of a jacket draped over a nearby chair and found the flash drive. He danced it between his fingers. Another laugh, more ruminative, carrying a trace of his old smoker’s cough. “Oh, if only,” he said lightly. He thought of typing “No, Where Are We Now?” into the comment box.

Instead he dressed, put on his cap and coat, went outside, had a cab hailed. He was murmuring. Lifeless planet…Out of the game. Like you’re in the game. Looks like it’s going to be one of Mr. B’s odd days, the doorman considered.

I: This Is How You Disappear

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I took what I was given
And I took what I had stole
But I took nobody with me,
Not a soul, not a soul.

Tennessee Williams, draft of “Blanket Roll Blues.”

The last time Bowie and Brian Eno had been in a studio together was in 1979, when they were listening to the Walker Brothers’ Nite Flights. Fifteen years later, Bowie and Eno finally made another record: in part a Scott Walker record, as it turned out.

The album, Leon, which would become Outside, had begun with paints and role-playing, with Eno assigning Bowie the part of a village storyteller. But as the sessions in Montreux went on, Bowie considered another role. He would create a Scott Walker album, an album that Walker, apparently lost to silence, would never make. The challenge was: where would Walker have gone after his then-last record, Climate of Hunter? Where would he be in 1994, after he’d been reduced to a set of speculations? He’s ill. All he does is sit in a pub in Vauxhall and watch ’em play darts. He’s done with music, he’s washed up. The Sunday People had even offered a reward for Walker sightings, as if he was a Yeti.

I just decided to stop for a while and concentrate on art, painting and drawing and things like that.

Walker, interview, 1995.

Both Bowie and Eno had wanted to produce Climate of Hunter; much to his label’s irritation, Walker had declined them both. Eno had tried again a few years later, offering his and Daniel Lanois’ services. There were a few preliminary sessions, but it didn’t work out—Walker allegedly later said of Lanois, “I didn’t get on with that guy,” and Walker collaborator Brian Gascoigne said “Eno hadn’t the faintest idea of what Scott was up to…[Scott] is happy to listen to suggestions…as long as nobody tries to insist on one that’s been sidestepped. And they, as hired producers, never understood that.” Now with Bowie’s scheme, Eno could produce a Walker record at last, and free of the burden of dealing with Walker.

Lodger had answered Nite Flights, as the latter had answered “Heroes,” but it had been a superficial response: a name-check, a song or two where Bowie had dug out his old “Scott” voice. Bowie and Eno didn’t take on “The Electrician,” which had stunned them: Eno once described the track as a future of music not taken. Bowie seemed obsessed with the song. Tackling “Nite Flights,” as he did in 1992, had been easy. “The Electrician” was more formidable. In the fifteen years since its release, he’d barely gotten its measure.

ElectricianFront

What was it about “The Electrician”? The only other song to rival it for Bowie was “I’m Waiting For the Man.” I once described “Man” as a song Bowie felt that he ought to have written; his recycling of its riff and rhythm in his own songs (everything from “Laughing Gnome” to “Heroes”) and his endless covering of “Waiting For the Man” on stage suggested that he was possessive of the song, that he had as much a claim to it as Lou Reed had.

“The Electrician” opens with massed atonal strings, a bass note tolling the downbeat and Walker’s groaning baritone; it shifts to a section where Walker and John Maus harmonize twistedly; it suddenly becomes a gorgeous flight of strings and Spanish guitar. Strings, bass and baritone return. There’s no help, no. A last shift of the strings and it ends. What’s striking about “The Electrician” is that these shifts have no dramatic impetus; they don’t feel scripted, they aren’t leading to or following each other. The song just resets itself each time it changes. A song about torture is now a love song is both is neither. The perspectives are fluid. The opening lines are set in the torture room, and on paper, they read like an Ink Spots song: Baby, it’s slow/when lights go low. The torture itself is erotic: the torturer jerks the handle, the victim’s body writhes.

In 1994, Bowie was writing about ritual murder and art crimes, mapping killers and lovers (were his Nathan Adler and Ramona A. Stone the torture/tortured pair, now stranded in some cybernetic gumshoe fantasy?). “The Electrician,” with its tropical extremes of mood, its indecipherable strains of romance and brutality, its sense of violation (the torturer is drilling through the spiritus sanctus, violating the spirit as much as the body) and resistance (whose dream is the strings and guitar idyll? the torturer or the person on the rack?), was at the root of the project. Bowie couldn’t claim “Electrician” as he’d tried with “Waiting for the Man”: he could only try to channel the song’s uncanny power into his own creations.

II: Rawhide and Bloody Bones

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They do not know her here. That is,
I am free to invent her! sweet
dogs.

Anne Carson, “Canicula di Anna.”

So if he was to make a ghost Scott Walker album, Bowie’s other reference besides “The Electrician” was Climate of Hunter. Outside was in part a corrective swerve away from Hunter. The latter, released soon before Bowie’s Tonight in 1984, is an odd duck: it sounds, as @discographies said, as if Walker hadn’t heard any contemporary music since the late Seventies. It’s cold and glossy, a “commercial” record by Walker’s standards, especially when compared to “The Electrician,” and it’s also a funeral for his past selves, an oblique way to prepare his audience for what would come next.

As Damon Krukowski and Lewis Williams noted, Hunter was rigidly sequenced. There are four songs on each side, mirrors of each other—each side was a move from “difficulty” to reassurance and goodbyes. So the openers, “Rawhide” and “Track Five,” begin with an isolated, odd sound (a panned, erratic cowbell and bass guitar harmonics, respectively) and remain bewildering—“Rawhide” is a Western “round ’em up” ballad with Cro-Magnon sheep herders. “Dealer” and “Track Six,” the knottiest tracks on the album, have Evan Parker’s saxophone (Parker recalled Walker, over a bottle of Chablis, asking for clouds of saxophones); “Track Three” and “Track Seven” were Walker’s idea of pop singles, with Peter Van Hooke’s hi-hat pushed up in the mix (just like his work on Nite Flights) and each with bloodless guitar solos by Ray Russell, who had to play “blind” in the studio, with no sense of the top melody.

And each side’s closer was a throwback: “Sleepwalkers Woman,” a gorgeous, string- somber ballad that opened like “Boy Child” and, as it went on, became a farewell, a man abandoning those who had known him in his beautiful youth. I am returned, he sang, but only to say farewell. Its Side 2 counterpart was “Blanket Roll Blues,” Walker’s last cover on record, a wisp of a song that Tennessee Williams wrote and Marlon Brando sang on The Fugitive Kind. A hobo’s song, a few lines hummed while a man breaks camp and heads off.

Hunter was a work of isolated individuals. Walker had written the songs alone, cooped up in a “workman’s cabin in Tunbridge Wells” during the summer of 1983, and he’d “kept his melodies a secret from his players,” often waiting until everyone had left the studio before cutting his vocals. There’s a cold, disjointed feel to the album: Mark Knopfler and Walker, the two performers of “Blanket Roll Blues,” are seemingly on different continents.

So Bowie would make Walker communal—he’d carve his songs out of the collisions of his players, playing live in a single room. Outside would be set in an imagined America, compared with Walker’s increasingly abstracted Europe (“I developed a European imagination, which probably doesn’t have anything to do with Europe at all,” Walker once said). And where Walker slaved over his lyrics, not recording until all of his lines were set (“I sit down and notate it all, the top line, rough idea of the bars. It’s an old fashioned way of working,” he said), Bowie had a computer program churn up a string of random text which he would pillage, calling out lines during group improvisations.

And as the Outside sessions went on, Bowie’s new “Walker” songs developed. The eerie moments of the Leon suites, like “We’ll Creep Together.”Wishful Beginnings,” with its keening ode to murder, set over drum and synth loops. The world’s-end sad sack lament “A Small Plot of Land.” And finally, his big roll of the dice: the song where he finally met “The Electrician.”

III: From a Motel 6

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He arose laden with doubt as to how he should begin. He looked back at the bed where the grindstone lay. He looked out at the world, the most famous experimental prison of its time. Beyond the torture stakes he could see, nothing. Yet he could see.

Anne Carson, “On the King and His Courage.”

“The Motel” opens in the lobby. Murmured conversations, barely heard over a duo playing in a corner of the room. A garrulous pianist, a secretive bassist. The latter* plays a fretless bass, another callback to Climate of Hunter. Nearly a minute in, Bowie wanders over from the bar, begins singing as if in mid-sentence. For we’re living in the safety zoneliving from hour to hour down here. Everything’s provisional, wavering—chords oscillate between F and F-sharp, Bowie often shifts between singing A or B-flat notes. An interlude: synthesizer, Mike Garson’s querying piano, bass fills. Bowie continues: It’s a kind of living which recognizes…the death…of the odorless man…

Its title suited it. A motel, especially the David Lynch-esque one Bowie’s checked into here, can be a purgatorial place, a shabby limbo (or, more fitting for Bowie’s past, a bardo, a vestibule between reincarnations; see “Quicksand”). Then drums kick in, cementing the song in 4/4, and Bowie sharpens his tone: There is no hell. There is no shame. It’s a (deliberate?) mishearing, an echo, of Walker’s “there is no help,” in “Electrician.” Bowie conflates Walker’s line with something he’d recalled from his visit to Gugging Asylum: “THIS IS HELL,” scrawled on a wall in the murderer’s wing. There is no hell…like an old hell. The chorus expires with Bowie hitting his highest notes so far: “it’s LIGHTS UP BOYS.” He builds on his dual references: Lights up, boys: a body twisting in an electric chair; lights up, boys-–it’s not a bar’s closing time, but the morning, when the inmates are rousted from their beds.

(This line recalls another story, one Walker may have known, if not Bowie: that Michelangelo Antonioni’s first film was to be shot in an asylum. Inmates were brought in, Antonioni put them into formation, was surprised at how well they took his requests, then he turned on his lights for a take. The inmates recoiled and convulsed on the floor. (“I have never seen such expressions of total fear on the faces of any actors…they started screaming, twisting, and rolling themselves over the floor….they tried desperately to get away from the light, as if they were being attacked by some kind of prehistoric monster.“) Antonioni abandoned the film, but the poet Anne Carson used it as a starting point years later, her poem offering that the inmates were only feigning their reactions so that they could roll around and try to kiss each other, stealing a moment of mass intimacy.)

The entire sequence repeats. A new intro (Garson at his tackiest; he’s the hotel pianist from an old hell), a last verse where Bowie disdainfully rips up stage props, like he once did to the paper skyscrapers of his Diamond Dogs set (“we’re living in a SEA of SHAM“), another chorus. But now Bowie keeps surging, gaining strength, hitting a high E-flat as the song itself solidifies in E-flat major, while Reeves Gabrels slams in with distorted power chords. The lobby’s become a stage in an arena. We’re back at the close of “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide,” a song that also had begun in obscurity and despair and which had climaxed in a Judy Garland moment. GIVE ME YOUR HANDS! RE-EXPLODING YOU!!! ‘COS YOU’RE WONDERFUL!! LIKE EVERYBODY DO!

And here “The Motel” faltered. Its lyric collapsed into gabble; its motion felt strained. It’s as if Bowie needed to have the song “pay off” in some way. This left “The Motel” in a curious state.  On Outside, “The Motel” is the blank at the center of the record. Sequenced between the battering “Hallo Spaceboy” and the jaunty “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town,” “The Motel” can seem like a seven-minute void. It seems actively hostile to the memory. I still don’t know what to make of it: sometimes I think it’s a latter-day flawed Bowie masterpiece, with a grisly beauty; other times, it can seem a failure, a self-sabotaged attempt to redo the “Electrician” that remains far in the original’s shadow.

Outside was done. And one day in early 1995, as he was mixing the record, Bowie read in a list of upcoming releases that Fontana was putting out a new Scott Walker album.

IV: Farmers in the City

tilt

Bowie: What do you think of his latest, Tilt?

The first half an hour was disappointing, because he does everything except what he’s best at…and the last 30 minutes are fabulous. It’s like Walker is saying: Okay, you’ve done your best and now you’re rewarded.

Bowie: I agree. I find it a sensational record, very brave too. I’ve got a lot of respect for his integrity. He’s true to himself, whereas other artists are traitors to themselves. He really works without compromising and there are very few artists like that…What you said about not doing what you’re best at. Well, it may sound arrogant but I don’t feel like adapting to wishes and expectations of the big audience anymore.

Bowie, interview by Humo, 1995.

I just want to connect with as many people as I can with it. I know it’s not easy but I’m always hoping.

Walker, interview for Tilt.

It became a farce: Bowie making his secret Scott Walker sequel while, unbeknownst to him, Walker was quietly making his own. And the Walker sequel lapped Bowie’s shadow one, coming out five months earlier! This caused a spot of apprehension, especially as Bowie was in the midst of negotiating a record deal. Eno wrote in his diary that the Walker record “could occupy much of the territory of Bowie’s” and feared what effect this could have on a record Eno was already worrying Bowie was compromising. “Bowie won’t release those things and, as time passes, more will get chipped away or submerged under later additions.

In April 1995, Bowie got an advance copy of Tilt. He phoned Eno and played him a track, said he was relieved: it sounded nothing like Outside. Crisis averted.

The best album that came out this year in terms of being an adventurous album was Scott Walker’s Tilt which of course died after about a week. It was bought by three people, me being one of them.

Bowie, Prodigy chat, 1995.

He was right: Tilt sounded nothing like Outside. What it had more affinities with was the now-buried and maimed Leon. Not musically but in both pieces’ hermeticism, their arrogant self-sufficiency, their strangeness. Hunter had been Walker’s conversation with his listeners: he’d challenged them and had dismissed them. Tilt offered no entry point: it simply begins and defies you to keep listening to it. The opener, “Farmer in the City,” allegedly had NME staff members yelling for the CD to be yanked while Marc Almond, upon hearing it, thought Scott had completely lost the plot. It was the most accessible track on the record.

If you’d made it through Walker keening, like the world’s loneliest auctioneer, “do I hear 21? 21? 21?”, then there came “The Cockfighter,” the true sequel to “The Electrician.” It was a piece of historical fascist erotica, with Walker connecting the trial of Adolf Eichmann to that of the allegedly adulterous Queen Caroline. Some of its lines could be said by a seducer, a torturer or a man conducting an autopsy: if you could turn on your side, move your touch to that hip…easy now, easy now. Walker first sings over what sounds like a rat gnawing through a wad of paper. The track is occasionally consumed in pummeling metallic sprays of noise. Later on there’s a horn that sounds like a horse being slaughtered. “Cockfighter” ends in another industrial noise-attack, dying off in a second as if someone had flipped a breaker as an act of mercy. And on the record went. The title song exhumed the Scott of Scott 3 and kicked him around a bit. “Rosary” found Scott alone on the far margins, muttering “and I gotta quit…and I gotta quit.

Tilt was ignored. No one knew what to make of it. Tilt was irreconcilably strange, the sound of a man pursuing what’s in his head, using musicians “who are extensions of yourself,” as Walker said. It was an actual millennial doom record, bled through with history and death: Eichmann on the scaffold; Pier Paolo Pasolini crushed under the wheels of his own car on a beach in Ostia. Walker quoted “Dry Bones,” Lauren Bacall in To Have or Have Not, Desi Arnaz’s “Babalu. He sang over the sound of the organ in the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster, strangled guitar and shaken bells. It was Bowie’s favorite album of the year; it was the record Outside pretended to be.

V: Lights Up, Boys

wire walker

What would make me happy is to be an artist living in a garret in a cold water flat somewhere, as long as I could afford art material.

Bowie, to John Dove, 1974 (as per Zanetta/Edwards’ Stardust).

He concedes there was a point in the mid-’80s when he thought about giving up music altogether to retire as a “garret-type art person with a loft in Soho. I fell foul of the marketplace…I suddenly felt, for the first time, inhibited about being creative…I was quite willing to opt into a life of crime and art. Or at least a life of art.”

Bowie interview, Vox, August/September 1995.

Throughout his professional life, Bowie has occasionally said that he wished he could chuck it all away. Become a real artist, live in a loft somewhere, not bother with record labels and tours and MTV. A few times he went through with it, sort of; his years with Iggy Pop in Berlin; his flirtations with the British art scene around the time he was recording Outside.

And in the Nineties, Bowie’s public effusions about Scott Walker’s integrity suggested that he was using Walker as a symbol, an embodiment of this sort of uncompromised artistic life. Bowie seemed to consider Walker as a boundary rider, off in the wilderness somewhere, using Walker’s sporadic progress reports to chart his own movements: he’s there, here’s where I’ll set up camp. He’d be the railroad that followed the first wave of settlers (the Hearst to Walker’s Swearengen, if you’ve seen Deadwood).

Bowie had always had a taste for musical eccentrics, those who’d gone further out on the branch, those who’d be fated only to be remembered by hipsters like himself: Ken Nordine, Biff Rose, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy. And Scott Walker, who he classed in this lot of Sixties oddballs, the great artist among them. Bowie treasured them, he treasured Walker, but despite whatever proclamations he made, Bowie needed a public. He worked in the public realm, he was its ambassador of the weird, and to indulge himself to make something like Tilt, to flay himself enough to really match “The Electrician,” now seemed beyond his powers, or his interests.

Sure, Bowie could have done what Eno and Reeves Gabrels had argued: put out the Leon sessions as one fearsome bundle. A CD of twenty-minute suites, full of gnomic dialogue, anxiety raps, shrieks, arcane beauties. His own Tilt. How would it have been received? With bafflement and irritation, condemned to quick obscurity, like Tilt was? Or with utter ridicule: Bowie’s folly? His own Life of Chris Gaines, to be used as a punchline by entertainment writers for their decade summaries in 1999?

This is just idle speculation, because the Outside that was released was a compromised record, in the best sense of the word. Some of its finest moments were its pop songs, its songs with catchy choruses and hooks, its songs seemingly intended for those Walker had left behind.

End Credits

Recorded ca. March-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, with poss. overdubs at the Hit Factory, NYC, January-February 1995. A live version from Amsterdam, 10 June 1997, was included on liveandwell.com. This story will conclude (?) with “Heat.”

Sources: Again, The Wire’s essay compilation No Regrets was of great help, in particular Damon Krukowski on Climate of Hunter, Brian Morton on Tilt and the 1995 interview with Walker conducted by Richard Cook. A dissertation on Outside by Nicholas P. Greco (2000) has a detailed analysis of “The Motel” at the close of its second chapter. Richie Unterberger’s Unknown Legends of Rock ‘n’ Roll is the source of the Gasciogne quotes. The Anne Carson quotes are from her marvelous Plainwater (1995). Thanks to Andy Zax for bouncing ideas (esp. on the nature of “The Electrician”), offering phrases and suggestions, and for scanning “The Electrician” sleeve.

* Very likely Yossi Fine, not Erdal Kizilcay. This decade-old post on the TW board by someone who’d met Fine claims that Fine played on some “track with a fretless bass” which he couldn’t remember, but which I’d venture is “Motel.” The bass is similar to “Small Plot of Land,” which Fine said he did play on.

Top to bottom: Walker playing “Rosary” on Later With Jools Holland, 1995; Bowie, The Walker Brothers Triptych, 1996; “The Electrician” single, 1978; “Track Three” single, 1984; lyrics (alleged) of “The Motel,” Outside; LP inner sleeve of Tilt, 1995; The Wire #135, 1995.


Wishful Beginnings

February 25, 2013

nyc

Wishful Beginnings.

One of the few Outside songs that Bowie never performed live, “Wishful Beginnings” was also dropped from the album on a few occasions: a late Nineties CD reissue and a vinyl edition. Unlike “Too Dizzy,” whose deletion was an act of self-criticism, the 5:09 “Beginnings” seems likely to have been cut for space reasons. Still, as it’s one of Bowie’s creepiest songs, hinting at the ritual murder of a young girl, it’s also possible that he had qualms about it (that said, it’s been restored to the most recent editions of the record).

Its lyric was allegedly the perspective of an “Artist/Minotaur” figure that Bowie made occasional gestures at explaining. It’s Bowie playing with one of his favorite interview subjects of the period: ritual sacrifice and murder as an art project. Tracing a line from Thomas De Quincey’s “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” and Andre Breton’s Second Surrealist Manifesto (“The simplest Surrealist act consists of dashing down the street, pistol in hand, and firing blindly, as fast as you can pull the trigger, into the crowd. Anyone who, at least once in his life, has not dreamed of thus putting an end to the petty system of debasement and cretinization in effect has a well-defined place in that crowd, with his belly at barrel level“) to the scarring and blood-drips of Ron Athey, Marc Quinn (whose Self was a cast of his head filled with eight pints of his blood) and Kiki Smith‘s anatomical art, Bowie said all of it was of a piece, a tradition of modern paganism whose impetus goes “back to the Romans and their drinking the blood and eating the meat of the bull to enable us to go forward into the new era…a kind of appeasement to the gods to allow us to go into the next millennium.”

So the Minotaur figure, which Bowie had depicted in a few paintings for a 1994 theme exhibit in London (“Minotaur Myths and Legends”), was part of this movement, representing a piece of the artist that needed blood and appeasement before it had the strength to create again. A few lines hint that Bowie’s performing the blood ritual on himself (“I’m no longer your golden boy…flames burn my body“), and one reading of “Beginnings” is that it’s Bowie’s fear he was endangering his hard-won, carefully-constructed family man persona by indulging in base, violent fantasies for the sake of making better records.

As a track, “Beginnings” was one of Bowie’s most radical soundscapes, a sprechstimme vocal over a set of loops: a constant 4/4 drum, a two-note “chime,” and a thudding kick drum sample hitting on every other downbeat, bringing with it a satanic cackle and a rattling tambourine loop. At first, the only harmonic material is a synthesizer chord in sync with the kick drum sample, and Bowie’s voice hangs suspended for bars without any sense of grounding: it furthers the feeling that the singer has gone untethered, venturing into madness and estrangement from humanity. (It’s mainly a single-tracked vocal, with occasional echoes mixed right.)

As “Beginnings” goes on, the patterns loosen—the synthesizer plays an occasional melodic fragment, and begins sounding ahead of the downbeat, while the tambourine loop slightly lengthens and shortens. By the midpoint of the track, where Bowie is at his gentlest (“we FLEW on the wings…we will NEVER go DOWN”) and a keyboard offers a trio of tiny melodies, “Beginnings” feels like it could blossom into something human. Instead, the song freezes again. The kick drum sample and synthesizer chords vanish, leaving only a doleful Bowie and his percussion loops. The project has failed. We had such wishful beginnings, but we lived unbearable lives…I’m sorry little girl. And out comes the knife.

Scott Walker is an obvious presence here: “Beginnings” is one of the Outside tracks where Bowie was seemingly attempting to do a pre-cover of Walker’s Tilt, released during the last round of mixing. There are traces of Bowie’s past as well, like Lou Reed’s “Make Up” (cf. Reed’s “you’re a slick little girl” with Bowie’s “you’re a sorry little girl“). Where Reed had warmly detailed the stylish, precise makeup ritual of a transvestite, Bowie dehumanizes the ritual, making the girl simply a body, stripped of humanity, a piece of meat being prepared for the blade. And its key ancestor was Bowie’s own “Please Mr. Gravedigger,” with which “Beginnings” shares a structure (a spoken-sung melody that’s barely connected to any harmonic base) and a lurid, exploitative flavor.

Recorded ca. March-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, with possible overdubs at Brondesbury Villas Studios, London, and the Hit Factory, NYC, January-February 1995. Deleted from 1. Outside Version 2 (replaced by the Pet Shop Boys’ remix of “Hallo Spaceboy”), but restored to the 2003 and 2004 reissues (Europe and US, respectively).

Top: Andreas Freund, “New York,” 1995.


A Small Plot of Land

February 14, 2013

ted untitled

A Small Plot of Land.
A Small Plot of Land (alternate version, Basquiat soundtrack).
A Small Plot of Land (Bowie and Mike Garson, live, 1995).
A Small Plot of Land (live, 1995).
A Small Plot of Land (live, 1996).

After having spent so long in the hypothetical never-was (scrapped tapes, character segues, indecipherable prose), it’s a comfort, if a cold one, to finally reach the Outside songs. These were in two blocks: pieces that came out of the Montreux sessions in March 1994, mostly improvised by Bowie and Eno with Reeves Gabrels, Mike Garson, Erdal Kizilcay and Sterling Campbell, and the block recorded in early 1995 at the Hit Factory in New York. The latter featured Gabrels, Garson, old Bowie hands Carlos Alomar and Kevin Armstrong and a new rhythm section of Yossi Fine and Joey Baron.*

The latter songs were generally a catchier and punchier set: the Hit Factory is where “Strangers When We Meet,” “Outside,” “We Prick You,” “No Control” and “I Have Not Been to Oxford Town” came together. The songs that began in Switzerland (with some exceptions) tended towards the grim, theatrical and rambling. Many of them shared a common port of origin: Bowie’s old obsession Scott Walker (more in “The Motel”).

“A Small Plot of Land”** is certainly Walker-haunted, with its references to “Nite Flights” (“swings through the tunnels”) and Bowie’s condor-swoops on the reoccurring “POOR dunces” suggest Walker’s strangled tenor. (A live version from Utrecht in 1996 sounds like Bowie is trying to win a Walker impersonation contest). But “Small Plot,” a song built on running collisions among its players, is also an example of the sound that Bowie and Eno had wanted from the Leon sessions. The track opens with Garson on piano, doing his typically frenetic wire-dancing, but he’s soon fighting to be heard against Campbell, who keeps constant fours with his bass drum while seemingly trying to throw Garson off with a rocketing snare pattern. For over a minute nothing advances, no verse appears; the song remains trapped in its intro. Campbell’s insurrections harden into a pattern—he’s stuck in a loop while Garson still has a measure of freedom allotted to him. Gabrels keeps upstage, playing a nagging pair of notes, mixed right, that are the twine holding everything together. Erdal Kizilcay’s bass seems to abandon the song after a few bars, as if he walked into a room and didn’t care for the atmosphere.

Bowie said about seventy percent of his lyric was pure computer-generated cut-up, hence lines like “he pushed at the pigmen.” Using a moderated sprechstimme, he worked his set of random words into a group of mourners. From the first note, he established a funereal march pace: a two-note opening phrase (“poor soul,” “prayer can’t,” “poor dunce,” “brains talk”), where Bowie holds the first note while letting the second, lower in pitch, quickly expire; and two or three “spoken” closing phrases, with just a few notes emphasized or raised in pitch (“he never knew what HIT HIM,” “and it HIT HIM so”). This pattern builds to the two final “POOR dunces,” with the last repeat ballooning the structure: a three-bar endurance of “POOOOOOR,” followed by a muttered “dunce.”

On to Gabrels’ solo, which he said took Adrian Belew’s solo on “Red Sails” and Robert Fripp’s on “Teenage Wildlife” as launching points. Aided by Garson pounding the bass octaves of his piano, Gabrels bloodies and dominates the track so much that when Bowie returns to sing another round of “poor souls,” he’s been reduced to a supporting role.

“Small Plot” had an alternate life. Eno arranged another version of the track for the Basquiat soundtrack, where Bowie sang, echoed by a delayed second vocal track, over “long, drifting overlays” of synthesizers, some intended to sound like motors and machines humming. Here Bowie’s dramatic build to the final “POOR SOUL” was scrapped in favor of a humbly-sung, double-tracked set of closing phrases; it’s the churchyard in place of the cathedral. Julian Schnabel, Basquiat‘s director, told Eno he thought it was a better version than the Outside track, and he used it in the film to score the death of Bowie’s Andy Warhol.

“Small Plot” was meant to be long, punishing and hard, and Bowie sequenced it to be unavoidable. On the album, slotted after the one-two punch of the title track and “Hearts Filthy Lesson,” it stilled the momentum. On stage in 1995 and 1996, Bowie plopped “Small Plot” dead in the middle of his sets, often prefacing it with a shabby man’s monologue on the poor dunce (“he wasted all his life, he was dumb, he deserved to die and now he’s dead!”) During early performances, he followed a routine where he first sang with his back to the audience, then paced in a tight circle, and during Gabrels’ solo, he walked across the stage pulling on cords, tugging down long, rectangular banners. Some thought it was a mime sequence symbolizing Bowie’s separation and alienation from the audience. Gabrels, in 2000, said it was just something for Bowie to do with himself during the solo, and it helped set the stage for the following number. “[It was] functional theatricality,” he said.

That said, the finest live performance Bowie ever gave of “Small Plot” was more in the Basquiat version’s line. At a private charity performance in New York in September 1995, Bowie sang it accompanied only by Garson, and he loosened the severity of his phrasing, allowing the song to mourn more openly. The climactic “POOR dunce,” sung gorgeously, led into a tolling Garson piano solo that seemed at times to be churning up Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” (“The last time we worked together before this year was in 1973, and as you can tell, we still haven’t found our way to finding a melody in those years,” Bowie cracked afterward.)

Recorded ca. May 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, with possible overdubs at the Hit Factory, NYC, ca. late January-March 1995. The Basquiat version may hail from the overdub sessions Eno and Bowie did at London’s Brondesbury Villas Studio in early January (there’s a reference to this version in Eno’s diary of the period). The version of “Small Plot” that Bowie sang accompanied only by Garson was for, in Nick Pegg’s words, “a private charity function at a New York hotel,” held on 18 September 1995. They also performed “My Death” there.

* One way to tell to which block a song belongs is its publishing: if it’s credited to Bowie/Eno/Gabrels/Kizilcay/Garson/Campbell, it’s definitely from the early Leon sessions. That said, most of the earlier songs were possibly reworked and recut and definitely overdubbed during the Hit Factory sessions.

** Bowie found the song’s title in the French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus (recall that Duncan Jones was getting a philosophy doctorate at the time, although Deleuze and Guattari were catnip for Bowie, who likely got a kick from lines like: a rhizome has no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo.) The paragraph Bowie took his title from could have been a manifesto for Outside: This is how it should be done: Lodge yourself on a stratum, experiment with the opportunities it offers, find an advantageous place on it, find potential movements of deterritorialization, possible lines of flight, experience them, produce flow conjunctions here and there, try out continuums of intensities segment by segment, have a small plot of land at all times.

Top: Ted Barron, “Untitled,” 1994. (As I’ve written before, Ted is a friend and a fine photographer).


Nite Flights

November 14, 2012

Scott Walker, Message to David Bowie on his 50th Birthday, 1997.

I see God in the window.

David Bowie, after hearing it.

See the dwarfs and see the giants. Which one would you choose to be?

Scott Walker, “30 Century Man.”

I. Engel and Jones

I suppose he had made some slight noise of some kind or other. It would have been miraculous if he hadn’t at one time or another. And yet, haggard as he appeared, he looked always perfectly self-controlled, more than calm—almost invulnerable.

Joseph Conrad, “The Secret Sharer.”

Start by placing them across the board from each other: two queen’s bishops, rows of squares ahead of them. One is Noel Scott Engel, born in Ohio in 1943, an American who went to Britain for fame and who stayed there; the other is David Robert Jones, born in Brixton on the day before Engel’s fourth birthday, who scrabbled for fame in Britain and, once he finally got it, left for good. Jones became David Bowie, Engel became Scott Walker. Each was precocious, ambitious, beautiful. They first met around 1966 at a London nightclub, The Scotch of St. James, when Walker was a pop star and Bowie nothing but polite aspiration.

The Walker Brothers were cool, handsome Californians who sang maudlin, shabby pop. Their hit singles were all dirges. Britain, more than any other country, took them to heart, a hint that beneath the shine of Carnaby Street and the “classless” glamour society pages of David Bailey’s Box of Pin Ups there was still a weary nation that had never gotten over the war, a Britain for whom the glum fatalism of “Make it Easy on Yourself” and the doom-struck “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore,” rang more true than “All You Need is Love,” whose promise seemed extended only to the beautiful and young. The Walkers, though they looked like surfer gods, lived in darkened rooms: they suffered breakups, desertions and morning-after regrets, their albums were lonely hearts columns. The somber flavor of their songs suggested there was still a war on (and of course, there was—one reason the Walkers had left the US was to avoid the draft).



Like the spider-egg memory cruelly programmed into the replicant’s memory in Blade Runner, the Walker Brothers felt real but did not actually exist in any recongisable reality.

Anthony Reynolds, “The Hollow Men.”

Years before Bowie would create a “plastic” rock star, there was the Walker Brothers (not brothers, none of them really named Walker), who didn’t play on their records, who used different backing bands for touring and TV appearances (live, Gary Leeds used paper sticks, the actual drummer parked backstage). As Reynolds wrote, the only “real” Walker Brothers were Scott and John’s voices, “two solo singers sharing a b(r)and name…[whose] LPs were the works of a mythical beast, spawned and constructed under the laboratory conditions of Philips Studios.

Not that it mattered. By 1966, the Walkers’ UK fan club was larger than the Beatles’ and the Stones’; Mick Jagger, sizing up the competition, tried to start a feud by flicking cigarette butts down on Walker at a nightclub. Lulu, besotted with Scott herself, recalled being unable to sleep while on tour with the Walkers because shrieking girls had the hotels under siege. The Walkers’ mid-Sixties was a reenactment of Beatlemania in miniature, more ritualized and more violent, with Walkers shows condensed to a half-hour of screams and gutter battles. One night Leeds saw a girl covered in blood from head to foot—she had crawled through a shattered window to get into the club—and he remembered another girl who wouldn’t let go of John’s hair even after being punched in the face.

It had happened by chance. John Maus and Scott Engel, who’d met in the early Sixties, got a minor hit in America and were working clubs on the Sunset Strip. John sang lead; Scott, his gloomy baritone suiting his role as bassist, was second string. Recording a new song, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weill’s “Love Her,” that had been written for the Righteous Brothers, the producer Nick Venet suggested a deeper-voiced lead for the Bill Medley role, and Scott became the front man. Leeds, a drummer that he and John knew, came back from a British tour with PJ Proby with UK contacts and a proposition. The three, christened the Walker Brothers, flew to London in February 1965. Four months later, they had a manager, a record contract and hits, starting with “Love Her.”

Scott had worked in professional music since his boyhood: he was making demos and singles in his mid-teens and had been a protege of the singer Eddie Fisher. It was a life of pointed ambition, reminiscent of another boy in Bromley who started cutting singles at age 17. But unlike Bowie, Walker had only a professional interest in R&B and rock ‘n roll (with the exception of the disco-tinged Nite Flights, Walker’s oeuvre is an alternate history in which “white” popular music had almost zero African-American influence). His idol was Frank Sinatra. Hearing that Sinatra had built up his lungs by staying underwater for minutes, Walker would try to hold his breath for a block when walking in London.

His was a wary fame. He never had a period like Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust era when he savored the absurd peak of his celebrity. Instead he escaped whenever he could, enisling himself in movie theaters, where he’d watch four films in a row, or turning up at nightclubs at 1 AM and sitting by himself; he took Valium to bring himself down, uppers and vodka to get him through sessions and shows. Encouraged by his manager to write B-sides for some publishing royalties, Walker found his ideal form of escape: his songs, from the start, fabricated worlds for him to hide away in. In December 1966 he had a breakthrough, with “Archangel,” built on a Bach-inspired pipe organ figure that Scott recorded at the Odeon Cinema in Leicester Square (a moviegoer’s whim indulged), and the kitchen-sink drama of “Mrs. Murphy.” In these two songs, a B-side and an EP track, was the breadth of his imagined, inherited London: the gossipy flavor of life in a two-up two-down, where angels sometimes appear at the windows.

Walker became a dedicated expatriate: Sixties London, he later said, really was the London he had dreamed of in America, the London of Ealing Studios films, of eccentricity and “making do,” with vaguely Continental daydreams as its mild opiate. He became a British citizen in the Seventies, though living in Holland much of the time, and his attitude towards his native country has been coldness tinged with contempt. An idealized, affected “British” sensibility colored his music. Even the Walker Brothers albums were structured like provincial pantomime revues: a Matt Monro-style ballad followed by a back-to-the-Sunset Strip rocker like “Land of 1,000 Dances,” a country-style number leading into one of Scott’s compositions (a bizarre piece of sequencing on Images sandwiches Walker’s “Orpheus” between anemic covers of “Stand By Me” and “Blueberry Hill”).

Much of the music, even the #1 singles, sounded slightly off, inaccurate translations. “Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine” was producer Johnny Franz and a pack of British session players (including Alan Parker, who later played on “Rebel Rebel”) going for the full-bore Phil Spector sound, with Hal Blaine style “on the four” drums, “Holland Tunnel” reverb and instruments stacked upon each other like folding chairs. But they didn’t quite pull it off: “Sun” has so much blear and murk that Scott drowns in the mix, but the track’s also thin-sounding in places; it’s a drywall of sound.

Still, even echoes have echoes. Some of Bowie’s 1966 Pye singles, with their Tony Hatch productions, seem crafted to mimic the gimcrack cathedral tone of the Walkers’ singles. He and Walker were in different worlds: you can imagine Scott’s face on a magazine cover at the Clapham cafe where Bowie once wrote a bitter little jibe called “Join the Gang,” which he couldn’t. Where Bowie was a footnote, Walker was getting enseamed in British pop legend. When the gangster Ronnie Kray shot a rival at the Blind Beggar on Whitechapel Road, one bullet from Kray’s Mauser hit the jukebox, causing the record playing to skip: the sun ain’t gonna shine…sun ain’t gonna shine…

II. Billy Balloon and Major Tom

Scott Walker, Amsterdam.
David Bowie, Amsterdam.
Scott Walker, My Death.
David Bowie, My Death (live).

Contrary to public opinion, I hated cabaret. In the course of four years, I mentioned it to David once. That was when he was broke and unable to feed himself. Cabaret? Not likely. It killed Scott Walker.

Kenneth Pitt, David Bowie’s former manager.

Caller: Is [“Plastic Palace People”] about what I think it is?

Scott Walker: Uh, yeah.

Capitol Radio interview, 1978.

It’s a well-established arc in pop: the teen idol grows (cracks) up. Idols are a savvier lot now, and managers have gotten far better at handling the transition, but it remains a treacherous crossing, one that usually demands some sort of declaration of independence. Scott Walker’s was extremist. Consider if Justin Bieber put out a record where he sang about losing his virginity in an “mobile army whorehouse,” recalled “the queer lieutenant who slapped our asses as if we were fags” and “my first case of gonorrhea” and closed with “one day I’ll cut my legs off or burn myself alive.”

Walker went to the Playboy Club one night in 1967 and met a German woman who worked there. Back at her place, she drank Pernod and played Jacques Brel records for him, translating the songs as they played. He fell in love, not with her. By chance, soon after that evening Walker’s friend Andrew Oldham told him that Mort Shuman had just made a translation of Brel songs for a stage revue, some of which had been recorded for a promo disc. Walker found this acetate, which had “Amsterdam” and “Jackie” and “Mathilde” on it, and, in his words, “ran with it.” Brel was his liberator, giving Walker cover, some exotica and notoriety.

So began the “shabby ’60s solo epics: fantasias of crumpled velvet” (Tom Ewing) that were the four Scott records: fervid Brel covers, MOR schlock, occasional country/folk forays and the Walker-penned songs, the latter increasingly more “lieder” than pop, with Walker disdaining hooks and choruses in favor of wandering through his endless, spiraling verses. His songs, sometimes literally art movies remembered in music (“The Seventh Seal“), were split-screen compositions (“Plastic Palace People”), flashbacks, slow-motion reveries. He peopled his lyrics with children and angels (and one in the same), tramps and toy soldiers (there was a touch of the black velvet painting in Scott’s songs of the period), squandered dreamers rotting away on fire escapes and terraces. His characters, refracted through his own brooding persona, seemed poisoned by memories, left motionless (the first side of Scott 1 is a set of remembered lost girls—Mathilde,Angelica, Lucy Brown, Joanna—that naturally concludes with ode to death). The Scotts are singular, as much out of their time as they reek of it: Scott 2 remains one of the stranger #1 albums ever released.

Late Sixties Scott can seem a schizophrenic character, hosting a lite-pop TV revue for the BBC while singing about prostitutes and archangels on his gnomic records. For some he was a tortured artist, packaged by his label and manager as a reluctant version of Englebert Humperdinck, who slipped in a few subversive masterpieces on records marketed to middle-aged bourgeois. For others he was a teen idol with bad taste, a ghastly poseur who took a sniggering adolescent pleasure in singing Brel’s bawdy lyrics. (He was easy to detest: Nik Cohn called Walker “top heavy and maudlin” in 1968 and Robert Christgau later threw up in print: “purely godawful…Anthony Newley without the voice muscles…a male Vera Lynn for late bloomers who found Paul McCartney too R&B.”)

Sure, Walker’s records are the sort of thing the couple in Paul Simon’s “The Dangling Conversation” would have on their hi-fi, and his lyrics can easily venture into Rod McKuen waters. He seemed an older man in spirit, a throwback whose main vices, booze and pills, were classic Hollywood’s, and whose interests were those of a graduate student ca. 1957: Camus, Bergman films, Bartok. The Scotts are the refined sound of the aspiring middlebrow of the Sixties, a tragic figure easy to mock today. A lost world of Cabernet, mime, mild Buddhism, poetry readings, “action” theater. Which, as it happens, was also the world of Bowie and his girlfriend, the dancer Hermione Farthingale, in 1968.

During the Scott years, Bowie was in the wilderness. His one LP had flopped and Deram stopped releasing his singles. And in 1968, a year when he didn’t release any music and nearly abandoned pop music, he discovered Walker. As with Walker and Brel, a woman was the ambassador. The songwriter Lesley Duncan had dated Walker and later briefly took up with Bowie, and Bowie found the latter’s records in her flat on Redington Road. Bowie was irritated at first, Walker seeming to mock him with his glamorous brooding Philips LP covers, but when he finally played the records he was entranced.

At first, mainly with Brel (Walker had chosen Brel wisely, as a carnival barker to get potential listeners into the tent). Bowie soon tried to make “Amsterdam” and “My Death” his own, singing them accompanied only by his 12-string acoustic guitar, but all he managed to do was cover Walker. The actual Brel, an agitated Fleming who expectorated his songs in performance, is hardly to be heard in Bowie’s various versions—Bowie’s Brel is just a shadow of Scott’s. Seeking to evade Walker, he only channeled him.

Then, through Walker’s own songs, Bowie began to craft a new persona to inhabit. He had forgotten he’d ever been a Mod and, in the words of his then-partner John Hutchinson, was now “into softer things.” Scott’s songs are in the sediment of Bowie’s late Sixties: in the bedroom of “hessian and wood” where Bowie and Hermione once stayed; in the paper-strewn rooms of the scholar who lives above an Austrian in “Conversation Piece”. And in the song that finally made Bowie? Is there some of Walker’s growing isolation and coldness in “Space Oddity,” in Major Tom’s desire to slip free from the world’s tether and just float off somewhere, like a balloon?

It’s easy to go too far in this game. There were other competing influences at work on Bowie, and Bowie’s arrangers/producers Gus Dudgeon and Tony Visconti were of a different cast than Walker’s, who were generally of an older generation. Dudgeon and Visconti were more pop-oriented, working in service to the song, favoring moody sweeps of ‘celli, using strings and horns to underscore top melodies, and while open to innovations like the Mellotron and Stylophone, kept them as secondary players in the mix. Nowhere on a Bowie record of the period is there anything like Wally Stott’s coagulation of strings, a semi-tonal quivering between G, G-sharp and F-sharp, that hangs like a storm cloud in Walker’s masterpiece “It’s Raining Today.”

It was this sound—a suspension between tonality and atonality, release and tension, fear and longing—which Walker had sought since he began making records (Derek Walmsley: “each instrument is locked into a hovering circle of vibrato, like bees moving in swarm formation“) and he would reuse it for decades to come, building and coloring his songs with variations on these shifts, with strings phasing in and out of key, players rolling out strings of harmonic and ghost notes that suddenly cohere into great clumps of sound. (On Tilt, three decades later, Walker would try to create “new chords” by having his players play major and minor chords simultaneously, aiming for “a yin and yang thing,” he said.)

The sound of “Raining Today” suggested that Scott was delving further inward. His lyrics grew more obscure, his art movie songs were increasingly meant for him alone, as if he was screening dailies of his dreams. After the triumph of Scott 3, Walker even discarded Brel, disposing of one last crutch. He went off the map as his audience fell away. There’s a telling moment in the Walker documentary 30 Century Man, when, as part of a transition montage, there’s a cut to a late 1969 issue of Melody Maker. On the right-hand side of the two-page spread is a photograph of a beaming hippie Bowie in an article about his hit single. On the opposing page, a dour Walker illustrates a piece about the poor sales of Scott 4, which Philips would delete in a year. Sun (machine) rising, sun setting.

You’ve been a wonderful audience. Now it’s time for me to go away.

Scott Walker, at the end of his first BBC TV show, 1969.

III. Ziggy and the Moviegoer

It bothered me that I couldn’t write a record. Sure. But I felt…it’s just as important to exist as write…Existence is worth everything. So I wasn’t dead, you know?

Scott Walker, interview, early 1990s.

Had my double vanished as he had come? But of his coming there was an explanation, whereas his disappearance would be inexplicable….

Conrad.

In the early Seventies, David Bowie finally became a star. You likely know the story: Ziggy Stardust, Ronson, the Spiders, Angela, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Tony Defries, Mike Garson, “Starman”, “Jean Genie.” Bowie still sang the Walker-Brel songs on stage but he’d long since dispensed any Scott-inspired production cues and lyrical influences, as though he’d stuffed away Walker in a box of teenage memorabilia when moving house.

As for Walker, he was hiding in plain sight. He still put out records, sometimes twice a year. The Moviegoer, Stretch, Any Day Now, We Had It All. These albums seemed intended to be remaindered, meant for dusty afterlives in charity shops and garage sales and church basements. One wonders who bought them (there weren’t many—none of the albums really sold). A fan from the Walker Brothers days, now married with children, who spied the still-handsome face on a LP in Debenhams and bought it out of some weak nostalgic obligation? A cultist, poring through the liner notes, looking for clues? Your grandmother?

Walker was blocked, creatively, and pushed by his manager to only do covers, so he grubbed out albums to meet his contracts and support his family, sometimes cutting all of his vocals in a single day, going through a bottle or two of vodka in the booth. He sang anything that he was given, sang it professionally and at times even beautifully, but with little artistry, little trace of his own interpretation. It was though he was demoing songs for other singers to do something with. Amanda Petrusich argues that Walker’s move into country music came as he was renouncing his citizenship, at the height of Watergate, and that singing country was a way for Walker to make some sort of reckoning with his past (he said in an interview that most of his family back home had voted for Nixon). It’s a solid enough theory as any. What’s more unnerving is the idea that Walker simply had no motives, had no strategies, but was just using music as a base currency. As Andy Zax said of these records, “their emptiness is startling.”

The connection could have been severed here: Walker drifting off into genteel nothingness, Bowie far off on his own path. But the line was still open on Bowie’s end. In late 1973, with the Spiders gone, with Bowie forced back onto himself and clawing his way out of a trap he’d made (he was trying to salvage at least three failed musicals), Bowie found himself listening to Walker again.

The first evidence on Diamond Dogs is a parody of Walker’s “Any Day Now” that briefly surfaces in the murk of “Future Legend.” Then, a few tracks later, comes “Sweet Thing/Candidate.” The ghoulish basso profondo that Bowie used to open “Sweet Thing” sounds like some resurrected, blighted Walker, Walker as some croaking Baron Samedi figure, pacing through Bowie’s Hunger City, looking for rough trade. It was a Walker that had never existed, one that seems instead to have been generated in Bowie’s shadow-memory of Scott’s old songs, and it’s a more frightening, vivid figure than Scott ever managed to play on his Philips LPs: a Scott purged of his middlebrow crooner affectations, clarified to base instinct and dark camp. The zombified Walker crops up again, as a lesser flavor, in some of Bowie’s other mid-Seventies songs (“Station to Station” comes to mind). It’s one possible ending: Walker ending up as one of Bowie’s characters, yet another influence absorbed. Instead, one day Walker woke up.

IV. The Electrician and the Lodger

David Bowie, he’s a very smart guy. He comes up with the goods and he makes sure of delivery right down the line. I thought, ‘Shit, if he can do it, so can I.’

Scott Walker.

Nite Flights (The Walker Brothers, 1978).

The Walker Brothers reunited in 1974, for lack of anything else to do. They got a minor hit, a cover of Tom Rush’s “No Regrets,” and stalled out. Their label GTO collapsed but there was enough money for one last record, so the Walkers figured they’d cut some of their own songs for once, using the budget to bring in some top session men (including Alan Parker and the guitarist “Big Jim” Sullivan, who’d played on hundreds of British rock records, including David Bowie).

So far, this has been a one-way tale: Bowie watching, interpreting, coveting, acquiring Walker. Now Walker, at last, was listening to Bowie, sifting through Station to Station, Low and especially the just-released “Heroes,” which Walker brought to the studio, playing it for his partners and the studio musicians (he also wanted everyone to subscribe to Gramophone magazine). The engineer Steve Parker told Anthony Reynolds that “Heroes” was “the reference album when we were making Nite Flights…we could have been more adventurous, maybe. If we’d had an Eno character in there, it would have been even more stunning, I think.”

What did Walker get out of Bowie’s “Berlin” albums? They were records of a man, pushed to his limits, who broke himself up and tried to piece himself together again, one who seemed intent on killing his former personae; Walker, after years of acquiescent mediocrity, of self-imposed artistic silence, was trying to write again, trying to make the step he felt he should have made after Scott 4. The Bowie records are also an exile’s albums, their creator roaming from Los Angeles to France to Berlin, which a fellow expatriate like Walker could appreciate. And more cynically, as Walker’s quote above suggests, he saw in Bowie someone to whom it had seemingly come easily, a man who dabbled in art rock but still got hits, one who seemed to have stolen the freedom to go where he willed. Remember that Walker wasn’t the mysterious avant-garde figure in 1978 that he’s since become. He was a pro singer who’d put out a lousy record for nearly every year of the Seventies, and whose vaunted Sixties LPs had more than their fair share of songs that could have been a Blood, Sweat and Tears album. He could still think in commercial terms, and he likely did here.

Nite Flights was front-loaded with Scott’s songs (though his fingerprints are everywhere on the record—as Reynolds wrote, the phased tubular bells and harmonized snare on Gary Leeds’ “Den Haague” are very Bowie/Eno/Visconti-inspired), which are sequenced perfectly. The opener “Shutout” is a first shot at Bowie, a reconsidering of “Blackout” with a taste of sharp violence, while “Fat Mama Kick” seems to be Walker taking Eno’s measure, writing a song that Eno could’ve fit on Taking Tiger Mountain or Here Come the Warm Jets. It’s a dark, extravagant goof, with Walker again, as with “Archangel,” busting the budget to record a colossal pipe organ (in this case, the Royal Albert Hall’s). “Nite Flights” (see below) is a maneuver where Walker met Bowie head-on.

He closed the quartet with “The Electrician,” where he pushed beyond Bowie and Eno, opening an avenue they had never considered. It begins with Walker’s favored dissonant string chords, with Walker, when he appears, groaning and bellowing as if he’d heard Bowie’s incarnation of him on “Sweet Thing” and thought, “oh, you think you can do this?“. Then, with the chorus, Walker strangles his professional voice. Considering his moneymaker baritone suspect, that it lulled the listener to sleep, he altered his phrasing and timbre, now singing lines in a straining, desperate tone that, like his love of consonant/dissonant strings, hung between being sharp and on the note. It suited the lyric, a love song about American complicity in Central American torture regimes.

There was nothing of its like in 1978. Brilliantly released as a single, “The Electrician” proffered a future that no one dared to take (Eno, decades later, groused about the cowardice of young bands who never went beyond “The Electrician,” but were just content to imitate him or Roxy Music or Bowie.)

In late 1978, Eno brought Nite Flights to Montreux, where he and Bowie had started recording Lodger. Bowie was stunned. One can’t blame him. Imagine if a great stone face to whom you’ve been making offerings for years suddenly rumbles up a response, in an approximation of your voice.

So Lodger was, in part, Bowie scrambling to acknowledge a revived Walker, from the obvious reference “African Night Flight” to “Look Back in Anger,” a song full of cold angels (at a time when Walker no longer seemed interested in them) and whose phrasing had a trace of Bowie’s old Scott imitation. But this was superficial. Bowie stewed, considered new responses. “The Electrician” proved such a challenge that Bowie played it for nearly twenty years, then all but rewrote it as “The Motel.” (But that’s a story for later.)

V. Nite Flights

Nite Flights (Bowie).
Nite Flights (Bowie, video w/introduction).
Nite Flights (The Tonight Show, 1993).
Nite Flights (Moodswings Back to Basics Mix).
Nite Flights (Bowie, live, 1996).

In the early Eighties, when Bowie pieced himself out to the world, Walker, after the promise of Nite Flights, seemed to leave it. It was here, not in his workingman’s Seventies, when he truly began to vanish. He had ceased to exist in the music press. None of his records get a mention in the Rolling Stone Record Guide of 1983, or in the Trouser Press record guides of the era; he merits a single line in a two-graph Walker Brothers bio in the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of 1983 and isn’t mentioned at all in RS‘ 1986 History of Rock & Roll. Nite Flights, rather than marking some startling rebirth, instead seemed his last roll of the dice before leaving the room.

Then Walker put out another record, Climate of Hunter. This would establish the pattern of his late work: silence, oblivion, then a new album. Released in spring 1984, a few months before Bowie’s Tonight, Climate made Bowie’s corporate nadir LP even more appalling. Climate was an actual adult pop record, Walker working with contemporary musicians and producers (Billy Ocean and Mark Knopfler, among others), but keeping his own counsel, to the point of perversity (the Ocean track, the most pop-appealing song on the record which even got a video, didn’t get a title).

For the rest of the Eighties, when Walker was nowhere to be found, Bowie endured his own public set of lost years, reduced to making records for the sake of it, losing himself, trying to purge his way back with Tin Machine. Finally, in 1992, looking for some anchorage, casting about for fresh influences or just any means to move ahead, he finally decided to take Walker on. He covered “Nite Flights.”

As with his take on Morrissey’s “I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday,” there was a touch of vanity in Bowie’s choice: “Nite Flights” is the closest that Walker was ever influenced by Bowie’s music, from the “Heroes” callbacks in the lyric (“we could be gods“) to its production and arrangement, which has the taut fluency of Bowie’s great Murray-Alomar-Davis band (the hi-hat, mostly played by Peter Van Hooke (and Frank Gibson here) is the unsung hero of Nite Flights, mixed as prominently as the lead vocal).

Bowie’s cover took the fractured disco of the Walkers and smoothed it out, deepening the song, gave it a steadier foundation (with Nile Rodgers’ fine rhythm guitar, starting in the second chorus, providing some friction). Just as with their Johnny Franz Sixties singles, the Walkers record, despite its pedigreed cast, had a feel of being scraped together at short notice, trying to approximate a sound they’d heard elsewhere. Bowie made “Nite Flights” a thick curtain of music, lessening the dramatics (Walker makes the out-of-key change to B-flat on “blood-lite” seem to portend something awful, while Bowie just breezes by it). Where Walker strains, gasps, acts as though he’s only got a few moments before something terrible happens (is he the air, about to crash? both he and Bowie shared a fear of flying), Bowie sings the bizarre, violent lyric (“the dark dug up by dogs!…the raw meat fist you choke!…broken necks!“) as if it was a love song, making it even more surreal, delivering each phrase with a poise that makes Walker seem like a madman. Bowie takes the first octave leap—“it’s so COLD!“—without blinking, where Walker seemed to bleed while doing it.

Covering Walker shook something loose in Bowie, reset his ambitions, made him commit to one last push into the avant-garde, to try to give audiences not what they wanted but what they didn’t know they needed. And in 1995, as Bowie was putting the final touches on Outside, a record that Reeves Gabrels has said was made under the influence of Walker, Walker popped out of the void with Tilt, a record so abrasive and baffling and ahead of its time, that it made Outside seem like a pop record. (Again, more later.)

VI. Walker and Bowie

I was in time to catch an evanescent glimpse of my white hat left behind to mark the spot where the secret sharer of my cabin and of my thoughts, as though he were my second self, had lowered himself into the water to take his punishment: a free man, a proud swimmer striking out for a new destiny.

Conrad.

Starting with Nite Flights and on through Tilt and The Drift (and, from what I’ve heard of it, Bish Bosch), Walker eradicated himself, exiled his past lives. There remains some continuity of sound (the dissonant/consonant strings, while a ghost of the flugelhorn in “Orpheus” appears in “Cue”, and a few basic lyric images: he’s still obsessed with the movies—“Clara” began with his memories of seeing Mussolini’s corpse on a newsreel as a child) but otherwise Walker has, more than anyone else of his generation, hived off his past, has made it of no relevance to him. He’ll never revisit his former work, nor flog it on stage nor give it deluxe CD/DVD reissue treatments (Walker has said he’s never listened to any of his records since he’s made them). The tremulous Anglophile of the Scott records, the jaundiced pop singer of Climate of Hunter, are well in the grave. The Walker of today keeps to the edges, looking for margins within margins. The Drift, in 2006, found him hiring top percussionists to punch slabs of beef and rub thimbles across wooden blocks. He sings his inscrutable lyrics, hinting at future fascisms, ethnic cleansings, plagues, in a voice that he seems to keep purging and bleeding; he’s become increasingly medieval.

Bowie, after his last trek into the attempted unknown in the mid-Nineties, fell back into his past. At the turn of the century, as we’ll see soon enough in this survey, he revived some of his oldest songs, remade them, like an older man reading aloud some faded letters; he drafted wills, put old debts to right, arranged his estates, then went out by playing his old music with fervor, as though he was a young man again. And he praised Walker effusively, again and again, his fandom ripening with age. Hearing Walker merely wish him a happy 50th birthday left Bowie close to tears. Whereas with Walker, whenever he mentioned Bowie (not often) there was simply gracious reserve, the quiet complimentary manner of an artist to his occasional patron.

So add up the sums. Walker, apart from a few Walker Brothers hits, has never produced work that a mass audience has loved, in the way that they have loved “Changes” or “Life on Mars?” or “Heroes,” or will still run to a dance floor whenever “Blue Jean” or “Let’s Dance” comes on. Bowie, despite his best intentions, was a populist at heart. As Lloyd Cole wrote about Low, there was always too much with Bowie, too much melody, too much love of pop, too much need to be heard, so that he never could cram himself down into being just an “artist” (it’s akin to how Bowie never could make a coherent “concept album,” as much as he hinted at it). Walker began standing in the center, a treasured photograph on a teenage girl’s bedroom wall, and wormed his way out, seeking nothing, throwing away everything that he once carried, occasionally sending some new transmission from somewhere far off the grid, seemingly not caring whether it even gets heard.

Consider two planets in the same system. One has been more favored by the sun, a rich world with a host of lesser satellites that wheel around it. The other is a smaller, less hospitable, furtive planet, which goes on long elliptical orbits, vanishing for years then appearing again in the sky without warning. Sometimes the two have been in sync, pulling on the other, eclipsing each other. But their dance is over. The larger world has stopped moving; it just hangs suspended now, having become a preservation of its better days. The lesser orb goes on its way.

In the next two months, Scott Walker will turn seventy and will release a new record, one which appears to be as weird and ominous as his other late works, while David Bowie is out of the game. His name only surfaces in quickly-disproven rumors of a return, to the stage or studio (a deluxe boxed set of Low is about all we can hope for). It’s a shame that their story, which had run for so long, through so many editions, is over, but all stories end: you know that. It was fine while it lasted. Secret partners, rivals, sounding, sounded, carriers, receivers, exiles, electricians. Engel and Jones, Bowie and Walker.

The Walkers recorded “Nite Flights” in February 1978 at Scorpio Sound, UK. Bowie’s version was cut ca. summer/autumn 1992 at the Power Station and/or Mountain Studios, Montreux. A remix by Moodswings was released as a UK promo 12″ single (Arista HOME 1) and later included on the reissued Black Tie White Noise.

Sources: The Wire‘s recently-issued essay compilation No Regrets: Writings on Scott Walker (edited by Rob Young) was essential. I’m particularly indebted to Derek Walmsley on Scott 3 and 4, Amanda Petrusich on Walker’s wilderness years, Ian Penman’s meander through Walker’s befuddled early Seventies and Damon Krukawski on Climate of Hunter. Anthony Reynolds’ The Impossible Dream is a first-rate bio: many quotes and facts are taken from it, as well as from the Bowie-produced 30 Century Man documentary (Kijak, 2006). Thanks to @Discographies (Andy Zax) for entertaining theories and offering insights and music.

Top to bottom: Scott Walker in 1966, 1969, 1972, 1984, 1995, 2006; Bowie in 1966, 1969, 1973, 1977, 1984, 1994, 2006.


Amsterdam

December 21, 2009

Amsterdam (Jacques Brel).
Amsterdam (Scott Walker, 1967).
Amsterdam (David Bowie, BBC, February 1970).
Amsterdam (Bowie, studio version 1971).

Jacques Brel, according to legend, composed “Amsterdam” in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, in a house overlooking the Mediterranean. He read the completed lyrics to a fisherman friend, who wept and cut open some sea urchins. After Robert Guillaume first sang “Amsterdam” at the Village Gate in January 1968, he recalled in his memoir there was a “disconcertingly long hush—followed by a roar so damn loud I jumped.”

Brel never recorded “Amsterdam,” despite it being one of his best-known songs: its only official release is on a 1964 live LP of Brel at the Olympia, in Paris. Bowie likely first heard “Amsterdam” via Scott Walker’s cover recording, which was the final track on Walker’s 1967 debut LP. Bowie also attended the stage show Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which, having debuted at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village, had come to London in the summer of 1968. The play had no libretto, just a series of performances of Brel compositions, with Mort Shuman (who also performed in the play) and Eric Blau translating Brel’s lyrics (freely and racily).

In late 1968 Bowie began covering “Amsterdam” with his folk trio, keeping the song in his stage repertoire until 1972 (he replaced it with Brel’s “My Death,” which better suited the times). Bowie even originally intended to end side 1 of Ziggy Stardust with his studio version of “Amsterdam,” with Side 2’s closing song, “Rock and Roll Suicide,” being a thematic twin of sorts, Bowie’s own rock & roll Brel song.

Like “Waiting for the Man,” the other song Bowie obsessively covered in this period, “Amsterdam” offers street life as stage material, but where Lou Reed’s lyric is the narrow perceptions of its junkie narrator, Brel’s “Amsterdam” is sprawling, a Bruegelian vision: a port filled with drunken, paunchy sailors who chew fish heads with their rotten teeth, piss in the street, fight, sing in broken voices and use the port prostitutes “for a few dirty coins.” The sense of life as a canvas, the vulgar proletarians as actors in their own dramas, appealed to Bowie, whose ’60s lyrics had tended to be obscure or bloodless—he sensed a method, via Brel, to connect with reality more directly, to use stagecraft to build more resonant songs.

Bowie also took from “Amsterdam” its sense of apocalyptic timing (such as how “Amsterdam” begins quietly, with the port slowly waking up, and builds to a wild, drunken spectacle) and its exacting demands on a singer, who has to deliver the entire lyric without barely a pause in three minutes, the intoned words “in the port of Amsterdam” serving as the unchanging hub of the song.

Bowie’s various covers of “Amsterdam” are as much interpretations of Scott Walker’s recording as they are Brel’s. In all his attempts, Bowie seems too much in awe of the material: when he tries to outdo Brel in intensity and Walker in moodiness (particularly in the studio recording) his vocal is stagy and strained, the lyric’s judgments seem unearned. It’s Bowie’s last apprentice work.

Bowie first recorded “Amsterdam” for the BBC’s Sunday Show on 5 February 1970 (on Bowie at the Beeb), and also for “Sounds of the ’70s” on 21 September 1971. The studio recording of “Amsterdam,” made in the summer of 1971 during the early Ziggy Stardust sessions, was eventually cut from the LP (though it was on the first master recording) and wound up issued as the B-side of “Sorrow” in 1973.

Top: “Renard Livres Echanges, near Les Halles, Paris,” 1970.