The Wedding, The Wedding Song

October 4, 2012

The Wedding.
The Wedding Song.

Bowie and Iman were united on one point: that Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus” was appalling and wouldn’t be used in their wedding ceremony. Otherwise she was happy to cede all musical responsibilities to her fiancee. So Bowie chose a Bulgarian choir record (“Evening Gathering”) for the bridal entrance, and for the recessional he wrote his own piece, an attempted fusion of Western and Arabic music to symbolize the union of a man from Bromley and a woman from Mogadishu.

Writing what became “The Wedding” (and its subsequent revision as “The Wedding Song”) served as a creative break for Bowie—he later said composing the former renewed him, with most of the self-penned songs for Black Tie White Noise coming soon afterward—and “The Wedding” worked as an album opener, offering an effervescence of spirit, a lightness of touch that seemingly had gone missing somewhere in Bowie’s Eighties.

Wedding songs and pop music are often ill-suited partners. Pop wedding songs tend to be grotesquely comic (“The Big Bopper’s Wedding,” “Dear Doctor”) or bitter and depressing, as someone is often left stranded at the altar in them (“$1,000 Wedding”) or suffers wedding-night blues (“Band of Gold,” “Wedding in Cherokee County”). It’s understandable, as marriage, with its compromises, its implied adulthood, its apparent finality, its sense of an ending, can seem irreconcilable with the ever-unfulfilled promise of pop music. Occasionally you get something as perfect and sweet as “Chapel of Love.” But just as often there’s an ominousness in wedding songs, a sense that the people who are marrying in them are deliberately blinding themselves for a moment, that their bliss will only last as long as the record plays. It’s telling that one of the best wedding songs, Ike and Tina Turner’s “It’s Gonna Work Out Fine,” happily documents the start of a horrific union.

It’s hard not to compare Bowie’s pair of wedding songs to his “Be My Wife.” The latter has no place in any wedding ceremony, with its abrasive neediness, its irregular rhythms, its empty vocals, although its chorus lyric, excised from its song, could have been written by Dan Fogelberg: stay with me, share my life. “Be My Wife,” written while Bowie was shaking off his addictions and his first marriage, has a cold irony in its depths: it means exactly what it says, that the singer is absolutely desperate for connection, that he wants to escape himself by joining with someone else, but the precise chaos of its arrangement and Bowie’s unreadable blank phrasing denies these attempts. It’s a closed circle.

There’s none of that tension in “The Wedding.” There’s no great depth of spirit, no sense of a settled conflict. It’s meant as a public song, the public face of an (apparently still) happy and successful union, a merger of thriving celebrity ventures, the musical equivalent to the images of the golden, supernatural-looking creatures marrying in the pages of Hello!. Built on a repeating three-chord progression (D-A-Bm-A) in A major, with a brief foray into B-flat major in a eight-bar “bridge” section (starting at 2:33), “The Wedding” is a series of intertwined duets. There are two sets of bells (tubular, played by Michael Reisman) that open the track, the two main keyboard lines, the two-note bassline, jumping between fifth and root notes of the chord (it’s close to a slowed-down version of the hook in Melle Mel’s “White Lines.”)* There’s even a pairing in the chord structure, with a steady A major dancing with a changing set of suitors: D, Bm, Bb.

Most of all, there are Bowie’s twin saxophone lines: an initial “traditional” one, calling back to the days of Davie Jones and the King Bees, with Bowie’s Earl Bostic-inspired playing rich with thick melody (he apparently used the solo lines as the basis for his vocal top melodies) that dances through two choruses, and a second “Arabic” saxophone—Bowie’s tenor sax altered, echoed and distorted, apparently sped-up in places—that’s more discordant and has a more exuberant energy. As Bowie easily could have found an actual Arabic musician to duet with him, his decision to also play the “Eastern” role, for lack of a better word, suggests an attempt to incorporate his wife into himself, reversing the birth of Pallas Athena.

I’m so happy people want to strangle me most of the time.

Bowie on the Arsenio Hall Show, 1993.

At some point in the BTWN sessions, Bowie decided to write a lyric for “The Wedding,” and so following the sequencing of Scary Monsters, he closed the album with a reprise of the opener. He happily admitted that his lyric was just a saccharine ode to his wife, his own extended version of “The Lovely Linda,” though the images he chose again were a reckoning with his musical past. There’s the murmured “I’m gonna be so good/just like a good boy should,” Bowie sinking to a low A on the last three words, which lightens the fatalism of “Beauty and the Beast,” where Bowie had tried to be good but admitted it was a loss. And the central image of Iman as his personal angel revises the indifferent angel of “Look Back in Anger” as a golden spirit.

Returning to how rock wedding songs often have an unresolved conflict in them, that tension is slightly there in Bowie’s “Wedding.” If Iman is his personal angel, she’s also on another plane from him, one which he’s denied entrance to. “She’s not mine forever,” he sings. She’s a temporary embassy from heaven to him, and he won’t be united with her in heaven, because heaven doesn’t exist for him: only the moment, only the wedding. But does it matter? A wedding at its best is a defiance: a public statement that despite age and indifference, despite the ravages of time and chance and illness, two people are taking an impossible stand against their inevitable demise, whether as a couple or as mere humans. “I’ll never fly so high,” Bowie sings, in a gorgeous, slow sweep up a fifth to peak on a long-held E.  But “I’m smiling.”

Recorded ca. summer-fall 1992 at Mountain Studios, Montreux and/or the Power Station, NYC. Released in April 1993 on Black Tie White Noise.

* An appropriately inappropriate reference, given DB’s history. Melle Mel had taken the bassline from Liquid Liquid’s “Cavern.

Top: Brian Aris, photographs from the Bowie-Iman wedding, 6 June 1992, Florence (Brian Eno looks like a caterer caught in the photo by accident). Complete set of Hello shots here.