You and I and George (The “Jean Genie” Variations)

August 22, 2012

You and I and George (Red Kelly, with the Stan Kenton Orchestra, 1959).
You and I and George (Rowlf, 1977).
You and I and George (Bowie, live, 1990).
You and I and George (Bowie, live, 1996).

The “Sound + Vision” tour, 1990: an 108-show, seven-month venture that opened in Quebec City in early March, shuttled back and forth across the Atlantic for months (and across the Pacific to Japan for a week) and closed on a late September night in Buenos Aires. As it’s the only occasion that I’ve seen Bowie play live (see “Changes”), the tour is tainted with nostalgia for me, a nostalgia leavened by the fact that I can barely recall the show now.

It was the first time since 1968 that Bowie had toured without promoting a new album. Instead he meant to sell the past, to promote his Ryko boxed set and CD reissues, with the hook being Bowie’s public announcements that this was it: the last time he would play the hits. (It wasn’t, for the most part.)

Bowie had kicked around the idea of a greatest-hits revue for years, and had provisionally committed to such a tour even before making the first Tin Machine album in late 1988. Once he’d signed with Rykodisc in spring 1989, Bowie began planning in earnest and soon locked in Adrian Belew as his lead guitarist and arranger. The two spent months determining how to arrange the songs essentially on a budget. Bowie envisioned the tour as a minimalist response to the bloat of Glass Spider: no horn sections, no backing singers, no dancers,* only a small band. So instead Bowie and Belew “put the orchestrations into a sequencer,” Belew recalled to David Buckley. “We kept adding more and more sampling, and we kept buying more and more samplers!”

It was audacious in a way: Bowie, if he wanted, could sample a trademark hook of some past hit on stage, whether David Sanborn’s saxophone on “Young Americans” or Mary Hopkin’s vocal line on “Sound and Vision.” The tour would be a traveling museum exhibit, complete with period sound samples. He and Belew would come out on stage and unveil the old treasures, one by one, set to elaborate light shows and film clips, the latter projected upon a diaphanous screen that hung behind them.

Audiences ate it up (the opening “Space Oddity,” Bowie emerging on stage alone with an acoustic guitar, was a phenomenal moment, I can attest—you could feel the auditorium shake), but there was something of a funereal air to the shows as well. It was as if Bowie was performing a rolling public eulogy for his past, with concertgoers as happy mourners. “Sound + Vision,” the genial obverse of the Tin Machine project, had the same intention: it was a firebreak between Bowie and his past selves, his past music, so that Bowie could enter the Nineties unencumbered.

The setlist was allegedly democratic, with songs chosen by fan votes, a herald of the Pitchfork People’s List.** Bowie said he assembled the 30-song setlist from roughly equal proportions of vote-winners from the UK,*** the US and Europe (the Americans had pushed for the recent hits, the Europeans loved “Heroes,” which Bowie introduced as “a song for Europe!” onstage at Linz—he sang the chorus in German, too).

It’s evidence that democracy is at heart bland. There was nothing from the Sixties besides “Space Oddity.” Nothing from Man Who Sold the World. Only the singles from Diamond Dogs and Young Americans. Nothing from the “Berlin” trilogy except “Heroes,” “Be My Wife” and “Sound and Vision” (& the latter likely wouldn’t have made the cut but for being the tour’s theme song). Only the Top 10 hits from the Eighties, with Bowie pretending, as perhaps some of his audience did, that he’d made no music after Tonight, except for the newly-released “Pretty Pink Rose,” which was a sop to Belew.

Bowie seemed ambivalent to singing some of the hits again. He told Paul du Noyer that he had no problem revisiting some of them, like the Station to Station material, but songs like “Rebel Rebel” (“written for a particular generation“) had no relevance to him anymore and he felt odd singing them. “I find I’m throwing them away a bit. I hope it doesn’t show.” He cut “John, I’m Only Dancing,” another faded generational manifesto, from setlists by the end of the first run of British shows.

The band was Bowie on rhythm guitar and occasional saxophone, Belew on lead guitar, the ever-ready Erdal Kizilcay on bass, and, from Belew’s group, Rick Fox on synthesizers/keyboards and Michael Hodges on drums. There was a clear hierarchy—Belew and Bowie were the stars, the rest of the band was backup (literally, as the band played behind the projection screen for much of the show)—and it grated. The backstage mood could be sour at times (“[Bowie] wasn’t very happy on that tour. Something wasn’t working. It was a weird atmosphere,” Kizilcay told Marc Spitz). Fox eventually checked out. His main job was to monitor the samplers and sequencers and ensure they were in sync with the performances, so he took to eating his dinner while at the keyboard, and was once found (according to Belew) listening to the Beatles on headphones during a concert.

Kizilcay said he found the inclusion of a Labatt’s ad midway through the Canadian sets (Labatt’s was a tour sponsor) to be crass and that it spoiled the crowd’s mood. Once Bowie blew up when Kizilcay mistook a Bowie hand gesture and rushed forward on stage to start dancing, which allegedly threw Bowie off enough to make him miss a vocal cue (the best recollection of the argument has Bowie screaming backstage and hurling his puffy shirt at Kizilcay: “take it, Erdal! take it and sing in my place!”). The tour was draining, with Bowie losing his voice at times (a fan who attended the Modena show in September recalled Bowie balking at playing “Station to Station,” killing the song after a few bars, then starting “Fame” in rough voice, throwing away his guitar and groaning “fucking nightmare!” into the mike).

Even the genial Belew could be frustrated with the sound and the performances. With so much of the music programmed (“Young Americans” was built on lots of samples and backing tapes, from the saxophone to the vocals), there was little room for improvisation. “Stay,” the funk centerpiece of the 1976 and 1978 tours, sounded anemic compared to its predecessors.

Still, the “Sound + Vision” shows were generally strong, the performances tight, and the tour remains the last time that Bowie fully gave the people what they wanted. The concerts served as a collective goodbye—a singer divesting himself of his past, casting it out to a crowd each night. The crowd watched enormous video projections of the singer, while at times ignoring the man standing underneath his giant reflection. It was an extended disappearing act.

“Sound + Vision” was tightly choreographed—one critic recalled noting a roadie standing offstage whose apparent job it was to light a cigarette for Bowie at a precise moment. Only in a few places per show, most often “Jean Genie,” did Bowie apparently indulge his whims. Often playing “Genie” as an encore, Bowie and Belew would extend the song out over ten minutes and throw in covers during the middle of it. Bowie had done that with “Jean Genie” years before, stuffing it with “Love Me Do” during his last performance as Ziggy Stardust. Now he threw in a variety of old favorites—pieces of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s a Gonna-Fall,” Them’s “Baby Please Don’t Go” and “Gloria” (the latter performed with Bono one night), “Maria” from West Side Story, “Heartbreak Hotel,” “Baby What Do You Want Me to Do,” “I Am a Rock,” Parliament’s “(Not Just) Knee Deep” (tragically unbootlegged), Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line.”

And on 21 May 1990, playing at the Tacoma Dome near Seattle, Bowie offered Red Kelly‘s “You and I and George.” Likely only a handful of people in the crowd knew that Bowie was paying homage to a local hero. Kelly was a Seattle shipyard welder who taught himself to play bass during World War II, assuming correctly that there was a shortage of bassists (though there’s always a shortage of bassists). He played with Stan Kenton, Woody Herman, Red Norvo, Charlie Parker at Birdland (he recalled Parker hugged him one night “so it must have been okay”). Kelly had retired to Tacoma: only the year before Bowie’s performance, Kelly had run for mayor on a platform of bringing back cable cars to Tacoma and starting up riverboat gambling. He got 10% of the vote.

Kelly wrote “You and I and George” in the late Fifties, when he was playing with the Kenton Orchestra, and the song was immortalized on the 1959 concert LP Kenton at the Tropicana. There Kelly, shuffling up to the mike and speaking in a doleful voice, offered what would become the song’s founding joke: that it was written by someone else, who preferred to remain anonymous as the song was so lousy. (The joke was too good—“George” has been described as a “traditional” song in several Bowie resources.) The distinguished bluesman Rowlf, playing “George” on The Muppet Show in 1977, said that the song only sold two copies: “I bought one and George bought one. Where were you?” In Kelly’s words, “George” was the product of a hungover songwriter who’d finally realized that people didn’t care about lyrics. It was just one sad verse: a trio walks along a brook, George falls in and drowns himself, the girl/guy winds up with the singer, who’s obviously his/her second-best choice.

Bowie honored the tradition: “You boo it when you’re fed up with it!” he told the crowd (see again Rowlf: “my own mother turns down her hearing aid when she hears this song!“). But in its few public incarnations, “George” had a small mordant beauty; it’s a sap’s love song. And Bowie’s vocal that night in Tacoma, somber and even mournful, seems in part a burlesque of his performance of “The Drowned Girl.” He sang “George” once more at the Bridge Benefit Concert in 1996.

The tour ended tensely, with some police aggression affecting the final South American shows (Bowie was playing Chile when Pinochet had only just relinquished power and was still commander in chief, while Argentina had had a spell of government-toppling riots in 1989). Bowie and Belew parted ways, Bowie promising to give Belew a call soon for further work (Belew told Paul Trynka in the late 2000s that he was still waiting for the call!). A few days after the last show in Argentina, Bowie went on a “blind” date with Iman Abdulmajid, who he’d met a few times backstage during the tour. He would marry her within two years; his next solo record would be a shrine to her. But first there was the Machine to put to rest…

Bowie’s “George” was recorded 21 May 1990, Tacoma, Washington (unreleased).

* Bowie had intended to use the dance troupe La La Human Steps but as the scheduling didn’t work out, he instead used video clips of lead dancer Louise Le Cavalier.

** Only about 20 of my picks (the obvious indie ones) made the People’s 200.

*** Cue the very, very shopworn anecdote about the NME trying to rig the poll by pushing for “The Laughing Gnome.”

Top to bottom: various photos and souvenirs from the 1990 tour, with the top photo coming from the show that I attended, Hartford, 23 July 1990 (it’s by Bonnie Powell). Most are from the essential Teenage Wildlife.

Sound and Vision

February 25, 2011

Sound and Vision.
Sound and Vision (live, 1978).
Sound and Vision (live, 1990).
Sound and Vision (remix, 1991).
Sound and Vision (live, 2002).
Sound and Vision (live, 2004).

“Low” was a reaction to having gone through that peculiar… that dull greenie-grey limelight of America and its repercussions; pulling myself out of it and getting to Europe and saying, For God’s sake re-evaluate why you wanted to get into this in the first place? Did you really do it just to clown around in LA? Retire. What you need is to look at yourself a bit more accurately. Find some people you don’t understand and a place you don’t want to be and just put yourself into it. Force yourself to buy your own groceries.

David Bowie, to Charles Shaar Murray, NME, 12 November 1977.

Some years ago, in the depth of the winter, my marriage fell apart. My wife left the day after New Year’s Day, and I was alone in the house with the dog. A day or so later, squirrels got into the walls through a plank of rotted wood on the roof. You could hear them thumping around, scratching; at times it sounded like a dwarf was carving with a penknife into the wall. I lay on my bed, watching an endless procession of brightly waning winter afternoons pass by, listening to the squirrels. It was too much. I carried the dog up into the attic to let her run around and bark, skills at which she excels. It worked—you could hear the squirrels scrambling out—but they came back at night with renewed intentions. Finally I hired a pair of men to get rid of them.

A salve for personal catastrophe is routine. Life is reduced to a series of minor actions. Today I will arrange the bookcase. Today I will go to the store. Tonight I’ll listen to this record. But what to listen to? Dylan’s divorce album Blood on the Tracks seemed an obvious choice, but it sounded grandiose, a war correspondence, as did Shoot Out the Lights. Maybe those records were just too suffused with pain, and I’d had enough already. No, what I played, over and over again, was Low, and what I played on Low, most of all, was “Sound and Vision,” and what resonated most on “Sound and Vision” was:

Blue, blue, electric blue
That’s the color of my room
Where I will live
Blue, blue.
Pale blinds drawn all day
Nothing to read, nothing to say…

Purgatory is a safe place, even hells have their consolations (“Here at least we shall be free”: Milton’s Satan, always the booster). One small pleasure of an unexpected solitude is the prospect of order. Life takes on an exacting quality. Colors, sounds have a greater purchase on the mind. Bowie called “Sound and Vision” his ultimate retreat song…it was wanting to be put in a little cold room with omnipotent blue on the walls and blinds on the windows.” And “Sound and Vision,” as it opens, seems like a locked room—a minimal set of players, everything in its place, a clockwork song. Eight bars, repeated exactly. Two guitars, panned to either channel; bass; Harmonized drums; whooshing percussion (likely a processed snare) that sounds like a radiator coming to life. Then a simple descending synthesizer line, a sudden sigh of delight.

“Sound and Vision” may be a depressive’s song, the few lucid thoughts of a man going cold turkey, but it’s also shot through with little moments of joy: Mary Hopkin’s charming cameo appearance; Bowie’s saxophone, which sounds like an old friend showing up unexpectedly; Dennis Davis’ exuberant drum fills. It’s the happiest song on Low. When Bowie’s vocal finally appears, in a long, slow movement that spans over an octave (“don’t you wonder sometiii-mes”), it’s as though he’s been listening along and just started singing, carried away by what he set in motion.

It’s also the breaking of a dry spell (unlike other Low tracks where Bowie had struggled to come up with lyrics, he wrote a long set for “Sound and Vision,” then pared the lines down). Invoking a muse is as old as poetry, and “Sound and Vision” offers a simple, muted hope for inspiration. I will sit right down, waiting for the gift. No grand gestures, no sacrifices, just a man sitting at a piano and hoping that the notes come, that a few words appear. It’s Bowie wondering out loud if he could ever write a song like “Life on Mars?” again, yet he doesn’t seem troubled if he can’t. He’s content to have gotten this far, grateful for what’s been left to him.

So “Sound and Vision” is a song about writing a song, and it assembles itself as it moves in time—first the rhythm section and the guitarists, then “strings” (the synth), then backing vocals, then horns, until finally even its author appears—and it seems to question why it works. Don’t you wonder sometimes? Why does music play on us? Why does A minor fit so well with G major, why is their marriage so happy? Why does Bowie singing in his lowest register work so well? What makes Hopkin’s throwaway “doo-doo-doo-doo” line, which she thought would be distorted in echo and parked low in the mix*, the linchpin of the song? (The latter fits with the meta-commentary of the whole track—there’s a woman singing backup because, after all, that’s what pop songs have).

Brian Eno mainly played walk-on roles on Low‘s first side, but Bowie wrote “Sound and Vision” with him in mind, and so it’s the first track in our survey to show Eno’s direct influence. For instance, Eno suggested that Bowie not sing until the track was well underway (1:30, almost exactly the song’s halfway mark), so as to build anticipation and confound listener expectations. Low is sequenced to start with one instrumental and close with another, so “Sound and Vision,” parked in the middle of the side, seems at first to be another instrumental, a midway mark. Yet delaying Bowie’s arrival also revived the past—it’s playing on the expectations of a ’20s-’30s pop music listener, who would have assumed that the singer wouldn’t appear until the band had played a chorus or two (for example, in George Olsen’s “Who” , from 1925, the singers don’t arrive until almost the two-minute mark).

If the musicians carry the first half, Bowie carries the rest, and there’s a wonderful precision to Bowie’s vocal here, a sense that he’s been allotted a short span of time and so has to plot his course exactly (the humbled way he offers “and I will sing,” keeping to a short span of low notes, or the sudden dawn of “over my HEAD!”) And then “Sound and Vision” suddenly fades out, long before one wishes it gone, and suggesting that what you’ve heard is just a small enclosure of some grander commons. It’s a sweet, generous piece of music, one of Bowie’s finest, most welcoming songs.

Recorded at Château d’Hérouville, September 1976, overdubs at Hansa, Berlin, Sept.-Oct. 1976. Released as a single (RCA PB 0905, #3 UK (the highest-charting Bowie UK single of the late ’70s, its performance aided by the BBC using parts of “S&V” in trailers), #69 US). Played once on the 1978 tour, at Earl’s Court (an off performance—Bowie’s not in the voice for it; compiled on the near-bootleg RarestOneBowie). Dormant in the ’80s, “Sound and Vision” had a sudden revival at decade’s end, titling Bowie’s career compilation and subsequent greatest-hits tour of 1990; Bowie had 808 State and others remix it. Played in the Heathen and Reality tours.

* Eno is credited on the LP as “Peter and Paul,” so completing the set with Mary Hopkin. Low is goofier than some give it credit for: the cover is a visual pun, for example.

Top: Esther Friedmann, “Iggy Pop,” Berlin, ca. 1977.