The Enemy Is Fragile

January 24, 2013


The Enemy Is Fragile.

The centerpiece of the Leon suite it (allegedly) titled, “The Enemy Is Fragile” is sung by a character who Bowie discarded when converting Leon into Outside. Pompous, vaguely academic, speaking in an exaggeration of Bowie’s “typical” voice, he’s Leon‘s narrator, its ringmaster. This was Bowie acting out the role Eno had assigned him: a member of an early 21st Century “Art and Language” band, one who makes incantations, permutations of something between speech and singing…a melange of several languages, since most of your audience now speak a patois that effortlessly blends English, Spanish, Chinese and Wolof…Your audience regards you as the greatest living exponent of live abstract poetry. Samuel Beckett is a big influence.

Bowie structured many of his early vocal improvisations around this character, who’s the dominant voice of the “Enemy Is Fragile” suite and who appears in the other two Leon movements. But as he developed more interesting (or at least more fun) voices, like Nathan Adler and Ramona A. Stone, the narrator’s use diminished. And as Bowie tried to make his “storyline” more open-ended, more disassociated, there was little need for an “author.” Leon‘s first voice had become a hindrance. So the first murder victim in Outside isn’t poor Baby Grace but this figure: a narrator who’s been killed and earthed before the album begins.*

Fanned across the “Fragile” suite are a few characters, like face cards in a hand. First the narrator, then Adler and Stone (they’re mirrors: art criminologist/artist, detective/suspect, etc.), later Baby Grace and old Touchshriek. But it’s mainly the narrator’s show, whether with his bizarre CD-ROM endorsement (while Ramona warns that the developing Internet is like a web, the narrator is a clueless booster) or his performance in the “Fragile” song itself, the hub of the sequence. Heralded by a tangle of percussion (Sterling Campbell’s kick drum, congas, synthetic “beaters”), Bowie starts the song off by gleefully naming the prime suspect of Grace’s murder:**

Hullo, Leon! Would you like something…really fishy?

The chorus kicks in with a sliding Erdal Kizilcay bassline, soon agitated on the top end by a whirling Mike Garson piano figure. The track’s rhythmic base is a stew of influences: Eno’s work with the Talking Heads (especially “Born Under Punches”) and, in Gabrels’ case, Adrian Belew-era King Crimson. (“A Small Plot of Land” has a similar ancestry.)

The narrator soon gets to work, channeling voices and playing roles: Henry II ordering the murder of Thomas Becket (“who has seen this FURIOUS MAN”? Who will rid me of this shaking head?“), a somber exorcist (“the enemy has always been here“), a murder detective. The latter finds a “fading photograph” in a sofa “forgotten by the last tenant” (Touchshriek’s tenant? and Baby Grace said she felt “like a fading photograph“), and soon enough he’s going over Grace’s corpse. “There’s something in her mouthsomething between patois and Becket(t)**…I bet it is a speech.” He probes into a corpse’s mouth and finds something lodged in her throat, but instead of the moth pupa of Silence of the Lambs, he extracts an accent.

Halfway through his “investigation,” he snaps, ordering his suspect to dance. This triggers the highlight of the track, a fantastic 16-bar break: Campbell bludgeoning his snare as if it had done him wrong, Kizilcay roaming on the loose, Gabrels playing an air-raid siren obbligato worthy of the Bomb Squad. Afterward everyone takes a breath, allowing for a message from sponsors—a return of the CD-ROM spiel that the narrator gave earlier in the sequence. “Sample techniques, exponents of the greatest Wolof band of the 21st Century… Phase techniques, and rich 21st Century Spanish incantations.

For the last section, the band kicks into life again, Campbell now accenting his furious kick beats with constant sizzle from his ride cymbals. The narrator unspools into a string of words, tearing apart whatever structure he’d tried to build. You ARE: a permutation! You ARE: a patois! You ARE: speech delay! You ARE: fighting to the death! And so he dies: “Enemy Is Fragile” collapses into a spittle-spray of language. It ends with one of the survivors: Garson, airily pursuing a flight of thought across the high keys of his piano.

Recorded May-November 1994, Mountain Studios, Montreux and Westside Studios, London. Unreleased.

* In a few interviews to promote Outside, Bowie name-dropped Barthes’ Death of the Author.

** Another possible influence on Bowie’s writing was the set of grim UK police shows of 1992-1994, esp. Prime Suspect and Cracker, each of which used serial killers of young women as staple villains.

*** Words taken directly from Eno’s summary, with Bowie also playing off the earlier Thomas Becket reference and Samuel Beckett’s dialogue (a modernist patois).

Top: Ron Aviv, “Kids Play Soldier,” Sarajevo, 1994.