Heat

October 12, 2016

tumblr_n3r635ow731rzvehuo2_1280

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.

dbym

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

yukio_mishima_1931

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.

yukio_mishima

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.”

yukio-mishima1

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.”

ww

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.

mishimaspeaks

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

wall

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.

springsnow

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

CZi70hoUMAABc2c

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):

amarcord

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

bowie-salute-glast-600

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

scott-walker

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.

121206-scott-walker

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.

r-700611-1151714269-jpeg

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.

bish

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

scott_down_1354789264_crop_550x401

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.

merry-christmas

‘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

2680659-david-bowie-2013-617-409

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).

heatsheet

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

mish69

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.

20161007_bowie_collector_mom-5095847

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

dbsp

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.”

walkers

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.

dbmish

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.
Advertisements

Valentine’s Day

October 23, 2015

vd

Valentine’s Day.

One of the last tracks completed for The Next Day, “Valentine’s Day” bristles with purpose: trebly, compressed, everything upfront, as if determined to get its hooks in you early. Scratched together quickly, it’s just Earl Slick on guitars (from chord-pacing acoustic to the lead lines) and the unobtrusive rhythm section of Tony Visconti and Sterling Campbell. It’s economical in structure as well, with just two D major progressions for verses (a set of knight’s moves away from the home chord) and refrains (a quick sweep back home) and then a shift to B minor for the coda.

The subject, if slightly oblique in the lyric, was spelled out by Visconti: “inside the mind of a high-school mass murderer named Johnny,* inspired by the spate of shootings in US schools.” An inspiration appears to have been the Columbine shootings, with the reference to the killer taking out “the football star,” but it could have been any of the endless run of American school slaughters of the past two decades: Red Lake, Virginia Tech, Nickel Mines, Northern Illinois U., Sandy Hook and so on.

It’s possible Bowie’s upcoming play Lazarus will shed some more light, as one of its main characters is Valentine, whose casting description was “the most ordinary of men—a person seemingly with little confidence—physically withdrawn to the point of invisibility; a loner who is in search of a friend—for some love—for a cause; but a man who is unable to edit his opinion and function as a ‘normal’ person; psychotic.” Or take the most recent revelations about the play, that some of its setting will be “inside the protagonist’s mind.”

So calling “Valentine’s Day” a straight-out depiction of a school shooting seems too literal. For one thing, who’s singing it? “Valentine” is seemingly another character, someone who’s confiding in the singer—the voice of a split personality, or the about-to-snap friend who’s warning the singer to stay home from school that day? And there’s little indication that the shooting is actually happening—it could well be a violent power fantasy (note how the setting shifts from school to “the mall” in the second verse).

“Isolation, revenge, osmosis” was Bowie’s précis for the song, and at its heart are the lines that build up the refrain—Valentine told me so, he’s got something to say. It’s a perversion of what Bowie had once promised his fans: that you can recreate your life, that you can build a life based on a commitment to change and renewal, that everybody can be a star. Here that dream of self-transformation is reduced to a hectoring, boorish demand—listen to me—at the point of a gun. It’s the terrorist position, as Leonard Cohen once called it: The terrorist position is so seductive that everybody has embraced it…Reduce everything to confrontation, to revenge.

Or just take how a line that Bowie in “Outside” had meant as a spur to creativity, a call to discard the past and focus on the present—not tomorrow…it happens today—is here merely the reality that some bastard with a gun could end your life today, just because he woke up and decided it was so. It’s happening today!

davie-bowie-valentines-day

It wouldn’t be as chilling if Bowie hadn’t made the song so catchy, with his Beatles chorus vocals (compare his ooo-la-la-las to those of “You Won’t See Me”) and Slick’s guitar arpeggio fills. Even the line about Valentine’s victims—“Teddy and Judy down”—has a sad Sixties echo to it, calling back to Ray Davies’ Terry and Julie in “Waterloo Sunset“; in a brighter time, the song could have been about them, a pair of lovers trying to work things out. Instead they’re just bodies lying in a classroom, another pair of names in a newspaper report (recall also that the names of the Aboriginal couple in the “Let’s Dance” video were Terry and Jolene).

And there’s a sense of building anger and disgust in Bowie’s vocal, how he moves from his opening fifth-spanning phrases that he drags through bars, gently extending his vowels (“treeeeasured,” “football staaaar,” “toooolld me”), to his agitated push upward on the title line to, in the coda, harping on a single note until nudging up or down to end a phrase (“it’s-in-his-ti-ny-HAND”).

The video, directed by Indrani and Markus Klinko, filmed Bowie miming the song in the ground floor of the Red Hook Grain Elevator. With Bowie dressed casually while playing a headless Hohner G2T guitar, the video’s intention seems to end the cycle of Next Day videos, lovingly depicting Bowie’s aging features in harshly-filtered lighting. (As the blogger How Upsetting noted, it’s the “living” Bowie after his resurrection in the “Next Day” video—a Bowie back on the job, doing the typical rock star thing where he pantomimes his new song in some obscurely chic setting—the Red Hook Elevator looks like a Roman bath.)

But there’s a barely-hidden violence everywhere you look—the way Bowie wields the Hohner like a rifle, to the point where some fans claim he was deliberately referencing a Charlton Heston pose; or what seems to be a bullet firing across a thrummed guitar string. And Bowie’s face, demonically grinning while he sings his refrains, is the counterpart to his angry closing vocals: own this. It’s a curse on his adopted country, a place in which the regular, random slaughter of children is considered the equivalent of some unavoidable act of nature, like a tornado. Hence the song’s title: a day meant to commemorate lovers is some grubby fanatic’s day of indiscriminate judgement.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. July 2012, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day and later issued as its fourth single.

*Not sure why Visconti called the character “Johnny.” Perhaps an earlier version of the lyric had “Johnny” as Valentine’s first name or the name of the singer, or maybe Visconti was recalling some earlier Bowie “Johnnys” (see “Repetition” or “I’m Afraid of Americans”).

Top: Shots from Bowie’s “Valentine’s Day” video (Indrani, Klinko).


(You Will) Set the World On Fire

October 14, 2015

llewyn-davis

(You Will) Set the World On Fire.

A track that seems as if Bowie used a Waring blender to make it, “(You Will) Set the World on Fire” is set in the Greenwich Village folk scene of the early 1960s yet has a garish rock-show arrangement. Its title is a would-be manager’s promise of fame but it’s also advice given by St. Catherine of Siena (another sign Bowie had a yen for medieval saints—see “The Next Day”).

The presence of Dave Van Ronk, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan (all hanging out in the same club, like a folkie Justice League of America) comes off more as stage-dressing, as if Bowie had just read Van Ronk and Elijah Wald’s Mayor of MacDougal Street (also used for the Coens’ Inside Llewyn Davis) and figured he’d litter the song with characters from the book.

Because rather being than any sort of homage to American folk music, “Set the World On Fire” is far more a “Broadway” song, with Bowie doing a camp take on a self-serious music—its closest ancestors are “Star” and “Zeroes,” his music-hall stage takes on rock ‘n’ roll.

The figure at the center of the song (“the black girl and guitar/burn together hot with rage”) is most likely the folk singer Odetta, who was represented by Albert Grossman, Dylan’s manager (Grossman could be the refrain’s narrator) and who sparked everyone from Janis Joplin to Dylan himself. So the reference to St. Catherine (who allegedly dictated her visions while writhing in orgasmic ecstasy) is Bowie casting the Sixties folk scene as a medieval order.

But using Odetta as the hub of the wheel here also seems like a feinting maneuver, as the only figure who came out of MacDougal Street who could sell magazines and get Top 10 hits was Dylan himself (“manipulate, origin, text,” Bowie winked in his description of the song to Rick Moody). I’d argue that the song is Bowie’s sly tribute to Dylan, the consummate thief, charismatic and manipulator of his era, who left all of his peers far behind by 1965 (“you’re in the boat, babe/ we’re in the water”). Here Dylan’s shown perched off stage, watching the hot new singer’s moves and maybe planning to nick them; the parallels with the shark-like young Bowie seem obvious, if unintended.

It’s a pummeling, somewhat disjointed track, with its E major verses rammed along by Earl Slick’s power chords, over which Bowie offers some spidery phrasings, while its E minor refrains are flooded with guitar dubs (some of which sound like they were originally scored as string lines), harmonies by Janice Pendarvis and Gail Ann Dorsey and some enthusiastic tambourine by Sterling Campbell. After some Slick fireworks for a rising major-chord break, the song finishes off with cannon-blast refrains, where Bowie pushes to the top of his voice’s range, as if trying to sound young and untried again by force of will. As St. Catherine said, “labor to increase the fire of your desire.”

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. July 2012, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day.

* From Letter 368, one of her epistles to Stefano di Corrado Maconi; it’s variously translated as “If you are what you ought to be, you will set fire to all Italy, and not only yonder” or “If you are what you should be, you will set the whole world on fire!”

Top: Oscar Isaac and cat, Inside Llewyn Davis (Coens, 2013).


Dirty Boys

October 8, 2015

garcon et fille

Dirty Boys.

“A euphemism, and a song, for all the glam rock stars that have ever been,” Tony Visconti offered as his take on “Dirty Boys.” His employer simply said: “Violence, chthonic, intimidation.”

Sequenced as a mid-tempo, spacious contrast to the frenetic opener “The Next Day,” “Dirty Boys” is an E minor piece that sways to Steve Elson’s fifth-spanning baritone saxophone figure: the riff sounds like a big man stomping across a dance floor. Elson, who played with everyone from Shuggie Otis and Big Jim Wynn to Natalie Merchant and Radiohead, cut the baritone sax lines for “Modern Love” and was one of the “Borneo Horns” on the subsequent 1983 tour. While Bowie was in his secretive pre-production for The Next Day, he ran into Elson in New York, had “a dad conversation,” and then told him “I’ll be in touch about something.” A year or so later, Visconti called Elson in.

“He’s a little guy and he’s got a huge baritone sax, and he plays this dirty solo that sounds like stripper music from the 1950s,” Visconti recalled of Elson’s work on “Dirty Boys.” “Old bump-and-grind stripper music…it wouldn’t be out of place on Young Americans.”

When Elson turned up at the Magic Shop in 2012, many tracks “had working titles and some reference vocals. David had ideas of where the horns should be,” he told CounterPunch. Bowie’s directions included “don’t even think about what key we’re in” and “go farther out” (similar to what he told Mike Garson when recording “Aladdin Sane”). He wanted only a few takes, nothing too considered. What he liked when recording, he told Elson, was to leave some oddments in tracks, “so you might find, in a record, things that only happened once that one time maybe—just to show we could do it…the gems hidden in the recording.”*

“Dirty Boys” honored this intention: it’s one of the few Next Day songs given the chance to ramble and breathe, and it’s full of characters. Take how Tony Levin’s bass, sputtering underneath as if vexed by how much of a star turn Elson’s sax is getting, will occasionally bubble to the surface. The general mood is a sinister Carl Stalling theme for a Forties Warner Bros. cartoon, with traces of Tom Waits’ mid-Eighties records.

It’s just three verses (shifts from E minor to C major, the same progression as “Eleanor Rigby”), two bridge/refrains that hint at a move to C major, and an outro Em solo. Elson is such a dominant presence in the track, from his main riff (a swaggering step-up from root to dominant note in each chord) to his closing solo, that it’s hard to imagine “Dirty Boys” working without the saxophone. It’s possible Bowie tried out having a guitar play the brass riff, but that would have overcooked the song: instead, the guitars are foils, hitting on the off-beats or giving spiteful replies to Bowie’s lines in the verses (the players were Visconti, Gerry Leonard and Earl Slick, who said of “Dirty Boys,” “if you’re going to have a title like that, I have to be on it”.)

Bowie’s phrasing, keeping to a narrow range of notes and, in the verses, ending every other line with a sinking triplet figure (“lone-ly road,” “cric-ket bat”), calls back to his old “folk” piece “Come and Buy My Toys,” and his lyric traffics in more memory: “Tobacco Road” (whether the Erskine Caldwell novel, the John Ford film or, most likely, the Nashville Teens’ 1964 hit) and, as usual, old Bowie songs—see the third verse’s “we all go through.” The setting’s Finchley Fair in North London; the dirty boys could be vampire hooligans; the singer (and the person whom he’s calling out) want to join the gang, or sleep with them, or both.

It’s the sound of a cutting contest run by Bowie (mainly single-tracked, with what seems like a touch of distortion on his vocal) playing a genteel dirty old man. One of the small disappointments of The Next Day is how much of an outlier “Dirty Boys” proved to be in the context of the album.

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

Top: “Tataata,” untitled, 2011.

*Take the little barking/scraping noise heard in the last seconds of the track—it could be someone yelping in the studio, or a squawked note from another Elson take.

Another reminder: Saturday, October 17; Astoria, Queens. Bowie night /trivia contest/ Rebel Rebel reading; all that jazz.


So She

October 1, 2015

soshe

So She.

Like “God Bless the Girl,” “So She” was a promising song from the Next Day sessions demoted to a bonus track. Started at the Magic Shop in September 2011 (the core group here was David Torn and Gerry Leonard on guitars, Tony Visconti on bass and Zachary Alford on drums), its odd structure is a whirl of feints and altered and swapped roles. A stark rockabilly guitar turns out to be some harsh prep for the song’s main hook, a dancing six-note melody (with leaps of sixth and seventh intervals) carried on keyboard and guitar. The chord progression of the first verse gets reused for the outro, while the second verse nicks the intro’s A major progression. And what seems like a refrain, a bittersweet eight-bar shift to C# minor and F# (“further out to sea…”), turns out to be a bridge: it appears only once, with Bowie singing the title line over the return of the intro hook.

Paced by acoustic guitar (Bowie, showing yet again he’s an underrated acoustic player) and Visconti’s restless bass, colored by Leonard and Torn’s atmospheres (and the occasional piano dub, like the raindrops of notes starting at 1:57) and a Visconti/Bowie string arrangement that builds from ruminative long-held notes in the bridge to fluttering figures for the title line, “So She” shines for what seems like a moment, then winds down into silence.

There’s a trace of “Slip Away” (“slide away”) and “The Motel” (“the priceless man,” meet “the odorless man”), and echoes of other The Next Day pieces—purloined eyes; lunar eclipses. Mainly it’s the return of “The Loneliest Guy“: the broken lonelyheart figure that Bowie’s played since “Letter to Hermione.” The second verse’s brief lyric—“she saw me smile….feeling like…I’d never been”—offers a happy ending at last: he’s found a love that makes him feel as if he hasn’t been born. Yet the reveal is that she makes him forget, for a moment, what he really is: “the only one and all alone.” And there it ends. Even the title’s a fragment: so she what? We’ll never know, nor will he, apparently.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. September 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day: Deluxe Edition.

Top: “Chris JL,” “Shoreditch, 2012.”


God Bless the Girl

September 24, 2015

t

God Bless the Girl.

For nearly a year, Bowie toyed with where to place “God Bless The Girl” (called “Gospel” until late in The Next Day sessions), moving the track up and down in the album sequence until he finally cut it, reserving it as a disc-closing bonus track for the album’s Japanese release. It was a little thank-you to a country with which he’d had a long working relationship (and also, and probably not coincidentally, a country where people still buy CDs.)

Like many in the US, UK and Europe, I first heard “God Bless the Girl” as a YouTube upload, where some guy who’d bought the Japanese issue recorded the track playing on his stereo. Yet another moment of global community created by Bowie’s merchandising stratagems.

Cutting “God Bless the Girl” and “So She,” among the more buoyant-sounding tracks that Bowie recorded in the period, made the climate of The Next Day ever more wintry. In keeping with Bowie’s frame of using past styles as templates for new songs, “God Bless the Girl” drew on Young Americans and “Underground,” with Bowie creating a “gospel” chorus of himself, Janice Pendarvis and Gail Ann Dorsey, and devoting the track’s last minute to their increasingly complex vocal arrangements.

Most of the players were overdubbed late in the sessions, suggesting that “God Bless the Girl” went through a number of shape-shifts in the studio (with perhaps Gerry Leonard’s ominous atmospheric guitar a holdover from an earlier incarnation): Morgan Visconti (son of Tony) plays the crisp Bo Diddley-esque riff on acoustic guitar, Henry Hey gets a brief piano solo, and the spare rhythm section (mostly Tony Levin’s Chapman stick and Zachary Alford’s kick drum and toms in the verses) is livened up by the percussionist Alex Alexander on woodblocks and tambourine. It’s structurally sparse as well: a long intro, a pair of verses in rising C major progressions, a rising A minor refrain, an intro recapitulation/piano solo, and a curtailed third verse that cuts into a refrain that’s elongated into a coda.

Is it an ode to a social worker or a nun, someone who’s quietly let down by the great gap between the promise of heaven and shabby life on earth? Or, in a parallel to the scenario Flora Sigismondi filmed for the “Next Day” video, is it the life of the “holy” prostitute Jackie (“her work is love…God has given me a job”) who’s trapped in a prison of her own devising, with some Christian imagery and even a nursery rhyme reference (Jackie sits in her corner). There’s the mystery of the reoccurring line there is no other—a rock-solid assurance of God’s existence, and a flat statement that there is no God. The Gnostic image of being “a slave without chains,” and the sense of entropy, of things running down—all movements in the refrain lyric are declines (wine becomes water; spring, winter; light, darkness), and as Bowie sings near the fade out: years pass so swiftly. Old songs are buried in the track, as they always are with Bowie—the brutes of “Funtime” turn up to close the refrains, with Bowie singing “I don’t wanna hurt you, just wanna have some fun” but sounding as if his fun requires her pain.

Bowie works to make “God Bless The Girl” unreadable. Take his stylized singing in the refrains, where he lands hard on each opening syllable, digs into the “ay” sounds, and repeats “treasure treasure” like a nervous tic, but his voice is still aching for deliverance, for purpose, for something other than the world. Or the vocal chorus, especially in the polyphonic coda where Pendarvis and Dorsey parry against their other voices, which falls in the line of “Underground” and “Young Americans”: it’s a collective jubilant celebration of one lonely, doomed man.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. mid-September 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 14 March 2013 on The Next Day‘s Japanese issue, and later on The Next Day: Extra.

Top: Satoshi Ohki, “A Nocturnal Tokyo,” 2012.


If You Can See Me

September 18, 2015

nikola

If You Can See Me.

“If You Can See Me” is dead-center in The Next Day‘s original sequence, like a scarecrow meant to send the half-hearted listener packing, with its chromatic chord changes, gear-shifts in meter, aggressive off-kilter top melodies and a lyric gnomic even by Bowie standards. Tony Visconti was struck by Bowie’s writing here, praising the “very wide, beautiful, crunchy jazz chords, with time signatures that Dave Brubeck would be proud of.”

Much of The Next Day reflects earlier periods in Bowie’s creative life—Bowie not sampling himself so much as he’ll “remix” the style of a Scary Monsters or Man Who Sold the World to fit current moods and obsessions. Seen in this light, The Next Day is something of a parallel world’s Bowie greatest hits record—slightly familiar songs as seen darkly through funhouse mirrors.

So “If You Can See Me” (and “Heat”) are the album’s most direct representatives of the Leon/Outside years. Yet where the Leon/Outside tracks were born from a band’s free improvisations, guided by Brian Eno’s “random” suggestions and steered by the likes of Reeves Gabrels and Mike Garson, “If You Can See Me” is essentially Bowie, sitting at a keyboard at home, rigging together an Outside song by himself, as if working with memories of old parameters.

The song’s built, as Bowie sings in one verse, as “chutes and ladders….from nowhere to nothing.” The D-flat intro and refrains, in a punishing 5/4 time, slowly climb from an opening G-flat chord to A-flat to B-flat minor until, after briefly losing footing and sliding down to Ab, it finally reaches the peak, resolving hard home on D-flat to end the sequence. This feeling of a desperate upward movement is furthered by Bowie’s phrasing in the refrains, where he sounds as if he’s moving with a great weight on his back, until ending with an exhausted, manically triumphant boast.

And the 4/4 verses are a shaky huddle around F minor, mainly sung over a drum loop and a stabbing keyboard line, with a syncopated bass pattern (with a flatted fifth note) that buttresses an E major chord guitar riff. As Clifford Slapper (who kindly puzzled out the song for me) said, the verses feel “jumpy, nervous, as if dancing on hot coals, before finding brief respite on F minor periodically (e.g., on “and meet me across the river”).” Again, Bowie added to the unsettled harmonic mood with a phrasing in which he’s a contrary force to the bassline hook, mainly keeping to one note, dragging lines across bars.

His lyric has further shades of Outside—hints at ritual sacrifice (“take this knife”) and serial killing (“a love of violence and dread of sighs”). The ghost of Ramona A. Stone walks again (“I should wear your old red dress”—recall “Paddy, who’s been wearing Miranda’s clothes?”), as do older specters—the utopian genocidal Saviour Machine, the dictator of “We Are Hungry Men,” the Führerling Alternative Candidate. (“Identities switch between someone who may be Bowie and a politician,” Visconti said of “If You Can See Me”.) Its last refrain finds Bowie in the ecstatic register of a fanatic, a conqueror or perhaps even God Himself, leveling curses, sacking the towns, threatening annihilation. The last calls of “If you can see me, I can see you“, slowly decreasing in tempo, are like a child-god’s taunts (“crusade, tyrant, domination,” Bowie offered as a précis.) But Bowie has always enjoyed playing villains, as they tend to get the best lines.

Does it all hold together? The production veers all over the place, with Bowie’s chintzy-sounding synthesizer lines getting more prominence in the mix than Zachary Alford’s kinetic drum patterns; Tony Levin is a quagmire foundation (in the brief post-apocalyptic coda, Levin grumbles off into the distance); Gail Ann Dorsey gets her most prominent spot on the album with her whirling vocal intro (shades of Clare Torrey on Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky“) and adds a high ceiling to some of Bowie’s lines. Bowie seems delighted to have managed to set the thing in motion, relishing the rhythm of lines like “American Anna, fantastic Alsatian” and having a blast playing Shiva, Destroyer of Worlds in his last refrain.

Impenetrable, viciously-sung, a strange dark work of labored ambition, “If You Can See Me” wound up being the Next Day track which most hinted at Bowie’s next move, the “Sue”/”Tis a Pity She Was a Whore” single in 2014.

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

Again, much thanks owed to Clifford Slapper (this song was a monster to figure out).

Top: Nikola Tamindzic, “SS1,” from his series “Interbeing.” See you next month, Nikola. (Again, October 17 in NYC.)


I’d Rather Be High

September 10, 2015

mc

I’d Rather Be High.
I’d Rather Be High (Venetian Mix).
I’d Rather Be High (Louis Vuitton ads).

Promoting Lodger in 1979, Bowie said his intention (which he’d only realized after he made the album) had been to create new situations by jarring together different elements. So you had Turkish stage-folk with a reggae base, or an Errol Flynn sea pirate scenario set to a Harmonia backing track. Something of the same is found in “I’d Rather Be High,” which shoehorns in Berlin reveries, Beatles vocals, Waughian satire, war reportage, Nineties neo-psychedelia and, in a later incarnation as the soundtrack of a Louis Vuitton ad, New Romantic trappings. It’s a traffic jam of references and signifiers.

Over a progression that plays three-card monte games in its D major key,* “I’d Rather Be High” has a dense lyric whose opening verse alone references Vladimir Nabokov’s last Russian-language novel, The Gift, which Nabokov wrote in Hitler’s Berlin from 1935 to 1937. As Roger Boylan wrote, The Gift is Nabokov’s “homage to the world that was,” his farewell to the Russian language and “the gift” of Russian literature, and “in its ambiguities, its poetry, its wordplay, and its structural originality, a road map to the rest of Nabokov’s work.”

One hot summer’s day, Fyodor Konstantinovich Godunov-Cherdyntsev (a barely-disguised self-portrait of a young Russian émigré aristocrat and writer in Berlin), goes to the park district of Grunewald, one of a mass of hearty Berliners. “The sun licked me all over with its big, smooth tongue. I gradually felt I was becoming moltenly transparent, that I was permeated with flame and disintegrated and dissolved…My personal I…had somehow disintegrated and dissolved…assimilated to the shimmering of the summer forest with its satiny pine needles…and spermy odor of sun-warmed grass.” Or, as Bowie sings more prosaically, “brilliant and naked/ just the way that authors look.”

What’s interesting is that Bowie may not have read The Gift at all, as the passage which I quoted is included in a book that Bowie very much had read: Otto Friedrich’s Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s. Friedrich’s survey of Weimar Berlin, along with Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin novellas, fueled Bowie’s conception of Berlin when he moved there. Friedrich was one of Bowie’s maps to an imagined Berlin, and whenever Bowie wasn’t content with the depleted, heroin-filled West Berlin of 1977, he could escape into pre-war fantasies: bicycling around sporting Isherwood’s Weimar-era haircut, going to the Brücke Museum, rereading Friedrich’s book over breakfast at the Anderes Ufer.

“I’d Rather Be High” has a similar feel of timelines overlapping and collapsing, like a floor of a tenement giving way and crashing down into the lower flats. The second verse, set in some grim tea room in a vague wartime London, references Evelyn Waugh’s WWII novel Officers and Gentlemen (“Clare” could be Ivor Claire, a soldier facing desertion charges) while “Lady Manners” suggests Lady Diana Cooper (née Manners), muse and patron of a World War I group of intellectuals who mostly died in the trenches.** Onward and outward the cracked storyline spins. Clare turns up in Cairo to join his regiment, winds up back in England at his parents’ gravestone.

Set against all of this time flux is the “present day” of the refrains: a soldier on a battlefield somewhere (it could be Gallipoli or Fallujah), shooting at men in the sand, wishing he could be tripping on something just to get out of the hell of reality. Tony Visconti had an oddly specific take on the lyric: “the lament of a demobbed Second World War soldier who would rather succumb to base emotions than be a human being.” (He also took pains to note that “Bowie does not want to be high. He is clean and has been an AA member for years.”). “Indifference, miasma, pressgang,” was all Bowie has had to say.

Bowie tended to consume books by the barrelful and he’d raided the likes of Alan Sillitoe for plotlines as early as his debut album in 1967. But something like “I’d Rather Be High,” so thickly-settled with literary references that there’s little room to breathe, conjures a world primarily existing in books and old memories of books. Nile Rodgers told the story that Bowie, having invited Rodgers to his home in Switzerland in 1982, spent hours showing him things—paintings, treasured records, books—so that Rodgers could get a sense of how Bowie’s mind worked. There’s something like this in “I’d Rather Be High,” which dares listeners to puzzle it out—it’s Bowie indicating that much of his “lost” years were spent lost in old books, and it could be as close to a portrait of his current mindset than anything else on the album.

In November 2013, Bowie showed up in a Louis Vuitton ad, directed by Romain Gavras. It starred the model Arizona Muse, who worked the Vuitton merchandise while Bowie and a Louis XVI court setting provided her with a lavish, slightly surreal backdrop. There are nods to the ball scene in Labyrinth (Bowie as another aging satyr ogling a young woman), Adam Ant’s “Prince Charming,” Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and so forth. Creepy doubles, a festooned man who looks like a plague victim, a set of levitating monks: it comes off like a budget-bursting episode of Russell T. Davies’ version of Doctor Who.

For the ad, Bowie offered a new mix of the song with prominent harpsichord (played by Henry Hey, as per the Next Day Extra credits, which suggests the “Venetian” mix was planned for the Vuitton ad early on, or that perhaps it was a scrapped earlier mix of the track that Bowie earmarked for the ad—some versions of the ad used a harpsichord-only variation in spots).

Hey’s harpsichord complemented Gerry Leonard’s lead guitar riff, which, in the track’s original mix, dulled itself through repetition (that said, the original mix better showcased Zachary Alford’s tricky shuffle pattern). While the “Venetian” mix couldn’t salvage the song’s grating bridge, which pops off with Bowie shouting “teenage sex—YEAAH!”, it added batteries of new vocals to the gorgeous outro, whose long-held “flyyyyying”s (in debt to John Lennon’s lysergic vocals on “Rain” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”) were some of Bowie’s finest performances on the record.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. mid-September 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day. The “Venetian mix” was included on The Next Day Extra.

* Mainly by moves to avoid going “home” to D major. See the verse (Bm-D-Bm-G-A), the refrain (A-Em-A-Dm-F#m-Dm-D) and the bridge (D-A-E-C7-A). There’s also another possible Nabokov nod in the intro: A-D-A.

** The connection’s likely owed to a character in Waugh’s novel, “Mrs. Reginald Stitch,” whom Waugh reportedly based on Lady Manners.

Top: Miley Cyrus, NYC, 2013.


Love Is Lost

September 1, 2015

dbpierrot

Love Is Lost.
Love Is Lost (Hello Steve Reich mix).
Love Is Lost (Hello Steve Reich mix, single edit).

Bowie’s public relationship with love is one of a man who’s never shaken his suspicions. There were times when he’d write a “Letter To Hermione” or a “Be My Wife” in his soul’s winter hours, “The Wedding” to crown a summertime. But the garden-variety love song has rarely interested him, nor has he done them well. A key song remains “Soul Love,” which he wrote when he was 24 and which, seemingly, became the guiding principle for much of his adult life.

Love, in “Soul Love,” is a plague, an infestation, a communal delusion. Love manifests itself, it binds and corrupts, it blinds and weakens. Love is a thing unto itself, not a feeling shared by two people; it’s summoned into existence like a djinn from a bottle, or born like some ill-starred child. It wreaks havoc by doing just what you wish it to. Black magic. How does the line go again? It’s not really work: it’s just the power to charm. Best to keep clear of it.

“Love Is Lost,” one of the great tracks on The Next Day, finds an older man talking up the years to an older self. “It’s the darkest hour,” he begins, mainly hovering on the root note. “You’re 22.” The year when he and Hermione broke up, the year when he wrote “Space Oddity.” When you’re developing as an artist, when “your voice is new,” that’s when love can really fork you off the path, send you off into the woods.

(In 1979, a 32-year-old Bowie told the interviewer Mavis Nicholson that where he’d once fallen in love easily, he now avoided it. If he were to love, he’d do so from “afar.” “But if you then decided to not love from afar, you, as an artist, would have to give up quite a lot of your time for them,” she said. “Yes, and I can’t do that,” Bowie replied. “No, no, love can’t get quite in my way. I shelter myself from it incredibly.” “What are you sheltering yourself from?” “From losing the other eye!”)

bowie-love

The refrain, merely the last bars of the verse, is a spin of words: love is lost, lost is love. Echoes come from everywhere, books (Love’s Labour’s Lost), lost friends (John Lennon’s “Love“: “love is real, real is love”) and, of course, “Soul Love” again: all I have is my love of love, and love is not loving. The last phrase bites the hardest. Love is not loving. Lost is love. Love only exists when it’s absent.

The music deepens the trap. Crouched in a bleak B-flat minor (the key of “Let’s Dance”—recall how much work Nile Rodgers had to do to drag that song onstage), the only movement comes from a descending eighth-note bassline (G#-F#-Eb) and Bowie’s organ, on which he keeps the same hand shape and moves it down the keyboard, keeping to black keys, playing two-note chords.* It’s how Bowie wrote “Changes” and “Bombers” and other piano pieces during his compositional breakthrough of 1970-1971—hold one position, then move around the board like a chessman. See what happens.

And yet more echoes: Tony Visconti “Harmonizing” the tone of Zachary Alford’s snare to summon the loud ghosts of Low. Or Gerry Leonard’s lead guitar, which he wanted to sound like Peter Green on old Fleetwood Mac records. Or the refrain of “Sexy Sadie,” heard in the later verses: what have you done? oh what have you done? (“You made a fool of everyone,” a ghost sings back.)

The first verse was a warning, but the kid paid the old man no mind. So a set change. Now the kid’s in love and Bowie, having used images of refugees, exiles and wanderers throughout the album, recycles them again. (“Hostage, transference, identity,” as he described “Love Is Lost” to Rick Moody.) “Your country’s new, your friends are new.” Being in love as having to live under witness protection, of love being the half-life of an ex-spy or a defector, someone rewarded for their treachery. New house, new maid, new tongue (the way Bowie snaps “ack-scent” into two sharp little syllables), new eyes, new teeth (one presumes). But the same swindled old soul.

Bowie uses the bridge, as often on this album, as a feint, a false ray of hope. A grand move to E major, escape at last. (The engineer Mario McNulty: “One part he played on the bridge of “Love Is Lost” made me shiver. The chord progression came out of nowhere when David put it down on the Trinity; it was pure magic.“) But the perspective remains back in the safe house; it’s someone looking through the blinds to spy upon the street, or staring into the mirror. Love as an induction, as a maze with no exit; after eight bars, an A major chord sends you hurtling back down to B-flat minor again.

It’s not about a love affair but how everyone has cut down their feelings in the internet age,” Visconti offered, in one of his duller readings of Bowie’s work (but who knows, maybe an earlier lyric had Bowie complaining about Facebook). The last verses, where Leonard’s guitar thrashes into life and Alford moves to his cymbals, retain the spy/refugee imagery but cut in images from an asylum. Love is like being held in an isolation cell, interrogated endlessly, the lights always kept on, no sleep.

And then the voices. Bowie’s love of the grotesque has been a constant of his life, from the Dalek rant of “We Are Hungry Men,” to the gargoyles of “After All” and “Bewlay Brothers,” to the smacked-out mumbler on “Ashes to Ashes” to the bedlam shrieks in the 1. Outside tracks. Here his backing vocals are, as he sings, “the lunatic men,” the goon squad (they’ve come to town—beep beep!) who torture those trapped in love. Say HELLO HELLO! they chant, working the winches (“hello! hello!” a Silesian choir sings, on a record playing in a haunted chateau in 1976). TELL THEM ALL YOU KNOW! and the last rising waves of You KNOW…YOU KNOW! …YOU KNOW! …YOU KNOW!

It’s a hell of one’s happy devising. The old man tried to warn you, but look what you’ve gone and done. No use. Hard stop. Cut lights. Strike set.

lost

James Murphy’s remix of “Love Is Lost,” which Bowie (or at least his financial adviser) considered essential enough to include on his most recent hits compilation, took the song out of its box, lengthened it to nearly 10 minutes.

To a track already freighted with the past, Murphy layered in more callbacks, scribbled more lines upon the palimpsest. Most notably Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music” (hence the subtitle), which becomes the fulcrum of the new beat, and, of course, Roy Bittan’s keyboard line from “Ashes to Ashes,” which appears like a special guest on a variety show, entering at a peak moment to rounds of applause. Murphy reversed the song’s mood-charts. The verses now seem sharper, more aggressive, where the bridge, instead of offering escape, becomes the cold heart of the track—Bowie’s vocal, freed from the major chord underpinnings, is left morosely hanging like a pennant in the air.

The video (for the single edit—the full edit got another one, which appeared to have scenes from a corrupted virtual reality sex program) was yet more attic-clearing. Grotesque puppets intended for “The Pretty Things Are Going To Hell” in 1999 are pulled out of their crates, dumped on the ground, looking like exhibits from an opening that never was, while Bowie stands in the bathroom of the “Thursday’s Child” video. He’s back in somber curator mode, a quiet contrast to the warlock face he makes by using Tony Oursler’s video projectors again (see “Where Are We Now?”)

He shot much of the video himself, reportedly turning a darkened corner of his office into a set and filming the whole thing for $12.99 (the cost of a new USB flash drive). There’s so much of the past racked up now that you can use it nearly for free.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. 3-15 May 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day; the Murphy remix first appeared (in full) on The Next Day Extra (released 4 November 2013) and also issued as a limited edition single (both full and single edits) on 16 December.

* The piano sheet music has the verse progression as Bbm/Bbm7-Ab/Gb5/Gb6. On keyboard, Bowie’s playing Bb-Eb, Ab-Db, Gb-Bb, Eb-Ab. Thanks again to “Crayon to Crayon” for insights.

Top: Pierrot Pierrot; thin white wooden duke.


I’ll Take You There

August 24, 2015

take

I’ll Take You There.

The other Bowie/Gerry Leonard co-composition, “I’ll Take You There” had bigger and better hooks than their “Boss of Me” but wound up slotted as a frenetic bonus track. Set in a B minor key that it’s desperate to escape whenever possible, “I’ll Take You There” is Bowie reconciling with his Eighties, to the point where his instructions in the studio were apparently to play “Beat of Your Drum” for the band a few times.

It’s mixed to grab at you, bluntly and often: the stereo-panned drums (fattened with percussion overdubs in the mixing sessions); Leonard, David Torn and Tony Visconti punching in as many guitar tracks as the console can take (Bowie played some acoustic, not that it’s found anywhere in the mix’s heavy traffic); Leonard doing his best Earl Slick imitation for a lead riff; a pneumatic drill of an intro/outro guitar line; the usual loop-de-loops with the backing vocals.

The lyric is well-sung bunk (the refrains start “what will be my name in the USA?”— it helps to forget the English language while listening) and the dippy bridge builds to a “look up…at…staaaaars!” climax that leaves Bowie stranded like a cat in a tree—the band has to ladder-walk him down before the next refrain kicks off.

It’s heartening that Bowie’s gaudy pantomime/ desperate “rocker” side hasn’t gone entirely lost, that he hasn’t grown too respectable. A tacked-on track on the “deluxe” edition of The Next Day, “I’ll Take You There” gives an amphetamine shot to an album bowing under the weight of its accumulated histories, miseries and deaths.

Recorded: (backing tracks) ca. mid-September 2011, The Magic Shop, NYC; (overdubs) spring-fall 2012, Magic Shop; Human Worldwide, NYC. Released on 8 March 2013 on The Next Day: Deluxe Edition.

Top:  Xiaojun Deng, “Mombasa,” March 2011.

“DBMSG77”

CMt6ZzoU8AAb3uA.jpg large

Ian McDuffie is a Chicago-based artist who’s been following this blog since…2010? A long time. In terms of blog commenters, he’s one of the village elders.

Ian’s taken my doom-filled, never-was 1977 Bowie Madison Square Garden concert from the “Bring Me the Disco King” post and has turned it into a short comic book. It’s been a tough month, so when I came home to find a copy of this in the mail, and to see my writing had inspired this—well, it really was something. So thanks, Ian, and thanks to all of you for sticking with this blog over the years (only 16ish more entries to go).

Please consider picking it up.

Rebel Rebel Promo News

Also: if you’re in the NYC area, mark your calendars: Sat. October 17, 2015.

It’s a big Bowie night at Q.E.D. in Astoria, Queens. I’ll be reading from Rebel Rebel and helping run a Bowie trivia contest, among other things. There will be music, and I’ll sign any books that you bring (and will have some copies to sell, too.) More details to come soon.