Segues: Nathan Adler

February 6, 2013

addled

Segue: Nathan Adler (1).
Segue: Nathan Adler (2).

What does Nathan Adler want?

I think Nathan Adler would require the world to come back to…certain parameters that he understands. He looks back rather nostalgically to a time when there was a seeming order in things. He’s really rather despondent that things are broken into this fragmented chaotic kind of state. Which of course it always has been. But in his own Apollonian way he sort of created the parameters for his society and how he should be. That’s him. And he’s got to solve this crime…

Bowie, interview by Moon Zappa, Interview, 1995.

Edmund Wilson, in 1944, wondered about detective stories: why were they so popular? why were so many of his friends and “respected” literary figures obsessed with them? So being Wilson, he read a stack of books and pronounced a verdict. He read Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe (“a dim and distant copy of the original [Sherlock Holmes]“), Agatha Christie (“[her] writing is of a mawkishness and banality which seems to me literally impossible to read. You cannot read such a book, you run through it to see the problem worked out“), and Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon (“a cold underworld brutality…[but] not much above those newspaper picture-strips in which you follow from day to day the ups and downs of a strong-jawed hero and a hardboiled but beautiful adventuress.”)

Wilson sniffed that detective stories were popular because they suited their shabby times, the interwar and war years, when the world “was ridden by an all-pervasive feeling of guilt and by a fear of impending disaster which it seemed hopeless to avert because it never seemed conclusively possible to pin down the responsibility.” In a mystery novel, by contrast, “the murderer is spotted and, relief!, he is not, after all, a person like you and me…[and] the supercilious and omniscient detective…knows exactly where to fit the guilt.”

Bowie’s Nathan Adler comes fifty years later, during another time of vaguely-perceived impending disaster. Speaking in an Englishman’s memory of a hard-boiled gumshoe’s voice, clad in the private eye’s uniform of trench coat, necktie and cigarette pack, Adler is the alleged protagonist and narrator of Outside. In his three segues (two official and one that’s part of “I Am With Name”), you might expect to learn something: background, clues, details on suspects, even a resolution.

You don’t get that. What you get is a stream of unaligned information: names, jargon, settings, incomprehensible actions. As Phil Sandifer wrote about the hip “paranoid” TV shows of the Nineties, especially The X-Files, which devoted years to sifting through layers of conspiracies within conspiracies, “the conspiracy does not provide an answer so much as it provides an interminable narrative stretching towards an answer that never arrives.” So Adler is a private eye who’s a red herring; his presence is a confusion. He’s a lost soldier of order who’s an unwitting element of chaos, and he’s as clueless as you are, if not more so (he may not have heard Baby Grace’s tape, nor is he privy to Ramona and Touchshriek’s thoughts).

This was a revision of Adler’s role. On Leon, Adler is far more present, speaking in each of the three suites. He’s still cryptic but his reoccurring presence acts as an adhesive that binds the bizarre suites together. On Outside, Bowie reduced Adler to cameo appearances. He was playing with the established role of the private eye: the loner who manages to break into a closed circle. Marlowe in The Big Sleep, Jake Gittes in Chinatown, Rick Deckard in Blade Runner. The private eye is a walking means to advance a story: he doesn’t know anything, so he asks questions; he pokes around and stumbles upon bodies and secrets; he eventually shades in the plot.

Adler* talks like his predecessors but no one talks to him, no one tells him anything. He’s not even trying to solve a killing but only to determine whether the murder qualified as art (he also works for an overseas employer: he’s a telecommuter). The screen detective he most resembles is Lemmy Caution in Godard’s Alphaville: an unflappable fragment of some lost narrative, blankly wandering through a world he can’t understand, still serving as a grounding point for viewers (and listeners, in this case). (Of course, a direct ancestor of Adler was Bowie’s cameo role as the lost FBI agent “Philip Jefferies” in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.)

The two Adler segues hail from different stages of the recording of Outside. The first is an edit of two segues from the “I Am With Name” suite and given a new backing track dominated by a jittery Reeves Gabrels guitar line (it’s possible it’s Carlos Alomar). The second, which is barely half a minute long, was recorded during a round of overdubs with Eno in early 1995 (it’s credited only to Bowie and Eno, unlike the other segues), and has Bowie muttering and moaning over a middleweight drum ‘n’ bass loop, an early sign of where Bowie would go next.

However, Adler also left a diary behind…

Recorded ca. May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and Westside Studios, London, with overdubs (and in the second segue’s case, the complete recording) at Brondesbury Villas Studio, London, January 1995.

* There’s plenty of speculation where Bowie took the name from. Candidates include the psychologist Alfred Adler, the 19th Century British rabbi Nathan Marcus Adler, the 18th Century Kabbalist Nathan Hakohen Adler (all dignified agents of order), and, Maj’s astute suggestion, Irene Adler. The name could also just be a joke about being “addled.”

Top: Gumshoe Jones.


Segue: Algeria Touchshriek

February 4, 2013

glowers for algeria

Segue: Algeria Touchshriek.

Do I detect a character from ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ lurking on your new album?
Bowie: Not intentionally….
The guy who rents the room–
Bowie: Aha! Catshriek! Yes, the guy who owns the store in ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four.’
There’s a little bit of him, I thought.
Bowie: It is very much. A very English character, he’s almost the stereotypical shop owner.

Interview with Seconds, 1995.

Bowie meant “Charrington,” but he was so tickled that the interviewer had unearthed a piece of his subconscious that he blended Orwell’s character with his own. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Charrington is the junk shop owner who rents a room to Winston Smith for his liaisons with Julia. “The old man seemed seldom or never to go out of doors, and on the other hand to have almost no customers. He led a ghostlike existence. Wandering about among his worthless stock, with his long nose and thick spectacles and his bowed shoulders in the velvet jacket, he had always vaguely the air of being a collector rather than a tradesman. He had dragged out from the corners of his memory some fragments of forgotten rhymes.

Charrington turns out to be a Party member who helps bait the trap that lands Winston in Room 101. (Some scholars have argued that Charrington is a veiled T.S. Eliot, who Orwell had defended from attacks by leftist critics and who later “betrayed” Orwell by declining to publish Animal Farm.) The loyalties of Bowie’s character on Outside are more vague. Touchshriek is a 78-year-old shopkeeper who, according to Nathan Adler, “deals in art drugs and DNA prints [and] fences for all apparitions of any medium.” His personality is described as “harmless, lonely.”

Lonely, yes. Is he harmless? Touchshriek has one of the more opaque roles in the Outside “narrative.” He seems to have seen something (Grace’s murder, Leon or Ramona’s arrangement of the body), as in a deleted Leon segue, he mentions having been walking near the Museum of Modern Parts, where Grace’s body was displayed. He’s considering renting a room above his shop to a fugitive (perhaps Grace was once kept there), and it’s possible Touchshriek was involved with the killing in some manner. In another deleted Leon segue, he mentions that he “knew Leon once.”

But Touchshriek’s far more interesting than his cloudy role in Bowie’s admittedly plotless mystery. His Outside segue, an edited/re-recorded version of a segue on the “Enemy Is Fragile” Leon suite, is a clever, touching, sharply compressed piece of writing. Bowie opens with some Edward Lear- and James Joyce-inspired wordplay and, showing a fine touch for detail, he builds up Touchshriek’s enclosed world in a handful of lines.

The backing track suits the flow of the segue, with Reeves Gabrels guitar and Mike Garson piano lines cycling beneath Touchshriek’s monologue, as if they’re interrogating him. (In the original segue, Bowie spoke over a gradual crescendo of Garson piano glissandi and Gabrels arpeggios). Some Eno “jungle” sounds accompany Touchshriek’s last words, and he walks off stage to a quiet flow of synthesizer chords.

If the various Outside characters are refracted pieces of Bowie’s personality, Touchshriek is the withered end of one unlived life, a David Jones who had stayed in Beckenham, had kept up marginal ties to the local art scene (imagine him still running an Arts Lab at the Three Tuns in 1995) and who had grown old and alone there. In this vein, Touchshriek also ties back to Bowie’s Sixties character studies, his songs of shabby bachelors, elderly shoplifters and Gurney Slade-esque suburban dreamers: he’s the heir to Uncle Arthur, the Little Bombardier, and the lonely scholar in “Conversation Piece.

Recorded ca. May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and Westside Studios, London, with overdubs at Brondesbury Villas Studio, London, January 1995.

Top: Bowie, older than he is today.


Segue: Baby Grace (a Horrid Cassette)

February 1, 2013

sad girl blue

Segue: Baby Grace (a Horrid Cassette).

When I listen to Outside now—yes, I do play my own records at home—it’s also Baby Grace’s voice that touches me most. Perhaps because I based her story on a girl I know very well and who’s been through a whole bunch of bad relationships in which she was abused. It seemed like she really picked that kind of man each time…

Bowie, interview with Humo (Belgium), 1995.

A mystery needs a corpse to set things in motion, so Bowie opens his narrative with “the art-ritual murder of Baby Grace Blue,” whose eviscerated, dismembered and mutilated body is found (in various pieces) at the Museum of Modern Parts, in Oxford Town, NJ. The gruesome state of Grace’s body is described in obscenely loving detail in the first section of the Nathan Adler diary, and the first character “segue” you hear on Outside is Grace’s, allegedly her last words, found on a “horrid cassette.”

Bowie was playing with a tangle of cultural references here: Laura Palmer, the dead girl who lies at the heart of Twin Peaks, was obviously an influence. But there are echoes of actual horrors, too. As Nicholas Pegg noted, the Moors Murders tape, in which 10-year-old Lesley Ann Downey was taped pleading for her life by her killers, was an inescapable reference for a man who’d been a teenager in Britain in the Sixties. The “Grace” segue was also in line with a horror film trope that developed in the Eighties and Nineties: the use of “real” footage in a fictional horror. With cassette and video recording having become cheap and near-universal by the late Eighties, this enabled horror film directors to up the ante by including videotaped “real” killings (the most effective, and absolutely, utterly horrifying, in Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) and using “found” footage to intensify a film’s sense of realism. This culminates in something like 1999’s Blair Witch Project, entirely filmed via hand-held video camera.

What to make of Grace’s segue? It’s a blend of absurdity and voyeuristic creepiness, with Reeves Gabrels playing wailing blues guitar licks and Bowie having a blast at imitating the rambling speech patterns of an adolescent (one admittedly under the sway of “interest” drugs). He told interviewers he got a kick out of gender-bending again. But Grace’s story, in which she hazily describes being prepared like a sacrificial lamb for a ritual that will result in her body becoming a bloody plaything for sadists, has enough real-life analogues in the past few decades that Bowie’s “tape” can come off as exploitative and cruel. (The original version of the segue on Leon is more disturbing, as Bowie’s voice is a fairly natural-sounding imitation of a teenage girl’s voice: on Outside, he altered his voice to near-Chipmunk speed). One of Bowie’s most (deliberately) tasteless works.

Recorded ca. May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux, and Westside Studios, London, with overdubs at Brondesbury Villas Studio, London, January 1995.

Top: Bowie attempts a second adolescence.