Stay

December 14, 2010

Stay.
Stay (Dinah!, 1976).
Stay (live, 1976).
Stay (Musikladen, 1978).
Stay (live, 1983).
Stay (live, 1990).
Stay (GQ Awards, 1997).
Stay (Musique Plus, 1999).
Stay (Bowie at the Beeb, 2000).
Stay (live, 2002).

“Stay” is equivocation bracketed by extravagances: its roll call of an intro and, most of all, its two-and-a-half-minute outro, where Earl Slick and Carlos Alomar’s guitars war, underpinned by a George Murray bassline that could support a Buick.

Recorded in what Alomar later described as a “cocaine frenzy,” “Stay” was in great part the doing of Bowie’s rhythm section—Alomar, Murray and Dennis Davis. Davis and Alomar were veterans of the great jazz-funk unit The Roy Ayers Ubiquity, and at times “Stay” seems like a lost Ayers track with vocal overdubs by an android. During the Station to Station sessions, Bowie had played a shell of “Stay” on guitar, some chords and the vocal melody, for the trio, who, after some jamming, “gave [the song] back to him,” Alomar said, adding that he wrote out a chart that served as the basis for the completed track.

So a group effort created the jittery intricacy of “Stay,” in which a relentless, shaky funk beat (it always seems on the cusp of shifting to a different rhythm, and there’s a measure of 3/4 for the last bar of each verse) supports a harmonic structure built of primarily ninth chords (fuller-sounding, yet also more dissonant)—the verse is G9-A9-C9-F9, for instance. Further twists are overlaid upon this foundation, like a Bowie vocal line laced with slow triplets (“change-in-the weather,” “hap-pened-to you,” “make me de-light”).

Bowie, in his three verses, keeps to a narrow melodic range, to the point where Bowie seems as much reciting his lines as he is singing them, then he offers a disjunctive, barely-there melody in the chorus, with wide melodic intervals (e.g., a seventh in “never say is/stay this time”), odd, even random-seeming emphases (take the way Bowie darts out the title phrase just as the chorus kicks in) and a generally distant, abstracted tone.

Over this Bowie set a lyric in which an alienated singer seems barely capable of, or only vaguely interested in, trying to land the object of his desire. Phrases of the modern pick-up scene, offered in the verses, come across as bizarre and awkward, as if Bowie’s sounding them out phonetically, while the chorus is an after-the-fact confession, the singer admitting to himself that this time he actually meant it, but, as always, failed to respond, and it ends with a line seemingly out of The Man Who Fell to Earth, which Bowie sings in such a knotty way that it becomes a twisted defiance: “cause you can never real/ly tell..when/some..body/wants…something/you want too/ooo.

Bowie’s distracted presence is nearly beside the point here, though, as in “Stay” it’s as though he’s guesting on his own record: a squalling Slick solo overshadows his verses, and Bowie disappears completely by the four-minute mark (playing “Stay” on tour, Bowie sometimes would stand, arms crossed and looking bemused, while his guitarists wailed on). It’s a showcase for the backing band, and during the intro, over 9 four-bar repeats, the group assembles. First Alomar’s solitary guitar, mixed in the right channel, offers a coiled spring of a riff, then Davis and Murray give the downbeat, followed by two repeats in which colors are added: congas, shakers and a droning keyboard line by Roy Bittan. On the fifth repeat, Murray and Davis begin echoing the guitar riff, while Earl Slick tears in, mixed in the left channel. Finally the track coalesces as the players prepare for the verse, with Slick getting a brief solo before, with a sweep, Bowie comes on stage at last.

Robert Matthew-Walker wrote that “Stay” melodically quotes from most of the other songs on Station to Station, which, if so (I admit I don’t really hear this), suggests that the track was one of the final pieces recorded, and makes “Stay” serve as something of a recapitulation in the context of the record (it’s the middle track on Side B). The ruthless sound of the guitars, especially in the outro, was owed in part to Slick overdubbing over tracks Alomar initially had laid down.

Recorded September-November 1975. On Station to Station and released as a US single in July 1976 (RCA PB 10736, c/w “Word On a Wing”—with the exception of the title track, every song on the Station to Station LP also appeared on a single). Seemingly designed for a road workout, “Stay” was a constant of many Bowie tours (allowing guitarists Stacey Heydon, Adrian Belew and Reeves Gabrels to show off their chops, for good and ill).

Top: Robert Plant surveys the conquered city from the balcony of the Continental Hyatt House, Los Angeles, 1975. (Peter Simon.)