Pictures of Lily

February 27, 2014

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Pictures of Lily (the Who, 1967).
Pictures of Lily (Bowie).

An early order of business once Bowie reconvened his band at Looking Glass Studios in early October 2000 was to cut a Who cover. Pete Townshend had asked him to take part in a Who tribute album (Bowie was the bait to hook other contributors, like Pearl Jam and Sheryl Crow). Bowie devoted little time to the task, with much of the recording cut in a few hours.

“Pictures of Lily” was at the apex of an astonishing run of Who singles between 1965 and 1967, Pop at its oddest and most adventurous. I once described “Lily” as “masturbation to centerfolds as cross-generational bonding,” complete with John Entwistle orgasmic French horn solo, and it’s a credit to the gifts and sympathies of Townshend in 1967 that the single broke the UK Top 5 and had a sad, comic humanity despite its potentially grotesque subject. The kid truly falls in love with Lily: Townshend’s guitar thrashing in the last verse is a curse at time.

Covering Townshend in the past, Bowie had bled the life out of his songs (see “I Can’t Explain“) and he kept up the tradition here: halving the Who original’s tempo and generally making a dirge of it. Using only Mark Plati for guitars and bass and Sterling Campbell on drums (with a later-dubbed Lisa Germano for the violin solo), Bowie’s version of “Lily” “came out sounding like a glam version of Crazy Horse,” Plati wrote in his web journal. “We did the entire thing in an afternoon, complete with Stylophone solo, Ronson homage outro and football hooligan chanting courtesy of the three of us.” Thanks to the molasses tempo, Plati’s guitars verge towards shoegaze at times while Campbell has to plot out his drum fills; the key change midway through the chorus, which erupts out of nowhere in the Who single, is as labored as a jet takeoff here.

Townshend reportedly liked Bowie’s aged glamster take on his song (he’d soon return the favor on Heathen). A sympathetic reading of the cover is that it’s about a kid who wants to grow up to be Lily, not just fantasize about her. As a treat, Bowie took his band to see the surviving Who at Madison Square Garden.

Recorded ca. 10-13 October 2000, Looking Glass Studios. Released on 12 June 2001 on Substitute: the Songs of the Who (Edel 0126242ERE).

* Townshend once said the Lily of the song was inspired by a postcard of “an old vaudeville star, Lily Bayliss” but he was likely confusing Baylis, who was a renowned theatrical producer, with the actress Lillie Langtry, who has indeed been dead since 1929. Though this being Townshend, who knows.

Top: Jennifer Connelly and Jared Leto, Requiem for a Dream (Aronofsky, 2000).


Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere

July 27, 2010

Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere (The Who, 1965).
Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere (Bowie).

“Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere”* is the least personal of the early Who singles: it easily could have been an instrumental. The band wanted its second single, as Pete Townshend said at the time, “to achieve the sound we get on the stage at present…show what we’re really trying to do.” So after the chorus and a bridge, there’s a nearly minute-long sonic steeplechase, with Townshend, his Rickenbacker stuffed with paper, producing harmonic feedback and using his toggle switch to make SOS signals, while Keith Moon and John Entwistle set off bombs underneath him. Townshend had wanted “to make the guitar sound like a machine gun,” he told Guitar World in 1996.

The lyric’s pure Pop aspirations—I can do anything I want to, at any time; I can recreate myself at will—sounded like wishful thinking when voiced by Roger Daltrey, all blustery delusions of youth. Bowie sings the lines as statements of fact. Nicholas Pegg hears Bowie “test-driving [his] burgeoning soul mannerisms” in the vocal, and you can hear Bowie trying out croons in the long-held notes. Mainly, though, Bowie seems to be trying to craft an imitation of Daltrey that’s superior to the original.

Taking that cue, Aynsley Dunbar spends most of the track playing technically “better” versions of Keith Moon’s fills; he’s powerful, but you hear Dunbar thinking all the way through the performance. As in “I Can’t Explain,” Ronson sounds mostly muted, coming alive only in the opening riff and in the taste of feedback he offers during the surprisingly dull rave-up section. A better cover than “I Can’t Explain,” if as pointless.

Recorded July-early August 1973.

* Pin Ups and most Who compilations have the song title written with commas separating the words, but the original single was titled “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere,” which works better, I think—the title’s so of the Now that pauses seem antiquated.

Top: Malcolm McDowell in Lindsay Anderson’s O Lucky Man!, 1973.


I Can’t Explain

July 23, 2010

I Can’t Explain (The Who, 1965).
I Can’t Explain (Bowie).

I Can’t Explain (Bowie, 1980 Floor Show, 1973).

I Can’t Explain (Bowie, live, 1983).

Weaker talents idealize; figures of capable imagination appropriate for themselves. But nothing is got for nothing, and self-appropriation involves the immense anxieties of indebtedness, for what strong maker desires the realization that he has failed to create himself?

Harold Bloom, The Anxiety of Influence.

Because to influence a person is to give him one’s own soul. He does not think his natural thoughts, or burn with his natural passions. His virtues are not real to him. His sins, if there are such things as sins, are borrowed. He becomes an echo of someone else’s music, an actor of a part that has not been written for him.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Pete Townshend checked Bowie at every turn. In 1965, when the two first met in Bournemouth, Townshend gave Bowie some condescending criticism about the latter’s songwriting, which Townshend noted was rather blatantly ripping off his own songs, and badly (see “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving”). The two had had little contact since. Then in the summer of 1973 Bowie covered two early Who songs on his new record, while Townshend was revisiting the ’60s as well, finishing up his Mod opus Quadrophenia.

The 1965-7 run which spans “I Can’t Explain” and “I Can See For Miles” works in terms of aesthetic power and urgent “now” reportage; Townshend is ceaselessly looking outwards, towards his audience, wanting to understand and empathise with them—these songs completely avoid sentimentality, oneupmanship and navel-gazing…via [Roger] Daltrey’s as yet untutored voice, you feel that they are singing to you and for you—and, sometimes (“My Generation”) at those who would rather not listen.

Marcello Carlin, on Who’s Next.

“One of the things [Bowie] does very well is find the strong parts of other artist’s “acts” and appropriate them into his own persona,” wrote an insightful, anonymous person in this ILM thread on Bowie. But Bowie never could figure out Townshend. Townshend was a playwright as much as he was a songwriter, with bizarre, first-person psychodramas that required a group to act out, whether it was a cad dumping his pregnant girlfriend (“A Legal Matter”) or a kid so fraudulent he may not even exist (“Substitute”), or masturbation to centerfolds as cross-generational bonding (“Pictures of Lily”) or the utterly bizarre and wonderful “I’m a Boy,” a rock single Philip K. Dick could’ve written. Townshend’s perspective was usually that of another, whether it was lyrics for Daltrey to sing or stories for an audience to piece together. The vocals on Who tracks—Daltrey’s growl, Townshend’s reedy tenor, John Entwistle’s near-soprano (or basso profundo)—sounded like the pieces of a single voice, joined together for a few minutes.

The group is a fairly simple form of Pop art. We get a lot of audience this way. Off stage, the group get on terribly badly.

Townshend, ca. 1966 (interview clip from The Kids Are Alright).

Did anyone believe in rock and roll as much as Townshend did in his youth? He was an evangelist whose audience had converted him, so much that he ended Tommy, his record about false messiahs, by submitting to the crowd, the true religion. He nearly had a breakdown writing a rock opera in which the audience would input their vital stats—climacteric charts, personal appearance, beliefs, etc.—into a computer, which would then convert the data into personalized musical signatures, with the hope that all of these signatures, played at once on quadrophenic speakers, would form one final, “universal” note or chord.

Townshend’s hope for the ecstatic universal in rock music was as far removed as you could get from Bowie, who, despite how much he relied on creative partners (from Mick Ronson to Eno to Reeves Gabrels), remained entirely singular. His songs could be empathic, but they were also unmistakably his perspectives. At the end, you always find yourself outside his songs. Bowie and Townshend were of irreconcilable minds, of irreconcilable worlds, and perhaps that got to Bowie, who had so capably absorbed so many other of his influences.

Is that why Bowie’s cover of The Who’s first major single, “I Can’t Explain,” is such a disaster? It’s an act of vandalism, as though Bowie intended to strip the song of everything that gave it power—Keith Moon’s whirlwind drumming, which is the track’s lead instrument; the surf group backing vocals in the verses; the pilled-up beat—and then watched it die. Ronson, rather than trying to one-up Townshend’s guitar solos, sounds neutered.

The most perverse misreading is in Bowie’s vocal. “I Can’t Explain” is sung by a kid who has never been in love, maybe he’s never even been attracted to another person before in his life, and suddenly it’s happening, and his life no longer makes sense. As with most of the early Who singles, “I Can’t Explain” is entirely of the present, with the singer trying to trap something unknowable and new into words—he should rush out the lyric, push against the flow of the music, sink under it. The vocal should be dizzy and frantic, and far from sensual. Instead, Bowie sings “I Can’t Explain” slowly, coolly, teasing out the lyric, lingering on phrases like a cabaret vamp: he’s appalling in his confidence.

Recorded July-early August 1973. Bowie performed it on his 1980 Floor Show TV special in October 1973, and he brought “Can’t Explain” back a decade later for his “Serious Moonlight” tour. The song still eluded him.

Top: Keith Moon conquers London, 1973.