Thursday’s Child

January 21, 2014

99peckham

Thursday’s Child.
Thursday’s Child (instrumental).
Thursday’s Child (Omikron “slower” version).
Thursday’s Child (video).
Thursday’s Child (“rock mix”).
Thursday’s Child (VH1 Storytellers, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (TOTP, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (Saturday Night Live, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (Wetten Daß, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (Nulle Parte Ailleurs, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (Francamente Me Ne Infischio, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (Quelli Che…il Calcio, 1999)
Thursday’s Child (Inte Bara Blix, 1999).
Thursday’s Child, (TVE, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (live, Paris, 1999).
Thursday’s Child (live, NYC, 1999).

One summer day some ten years ago, I was helping to paint a house. On the boombox was Best of Bowie: a long, chronological march from the beachhead of “Space Oddity,” with most songs met by indifference and occasional hums. The caressing synthesizers of “Thursday’s Child” began, and as Bowie started crooning, a fellow painter stopped mid-swipe and looked over at the CD player.

What happened to that guy?” he said.

We’d made it through “Dancing In the Street” with a few chuckles and “Under the God” without comment. But “Thursday’s Child,” on that hot afternoon, sounded awful: treacly, gaspy, wan; the limp expiration of a career. When heard as the close of a sequence that runs through “Rebel Rebel,” “Ashes to Ashes,” “Modern Love” and “The Hearts Filthy Lesson,” “Thursday’s Child” sounds like a man falling down in the street, a hasty end scene tacked onto an overlong Act V. “I’m done with the future: here’s a song for your grandmother.” Dies, borne off stage right.

Sure, any slow, fragile-sounding number could’ve gotten a raspberry that day from our collection of young and recently-young NYC snobs. It’s not as if “Thursday’s Child” is an ill-constructed or poorly-sung track: if anything, it’s one of the few Bowie compositions of the period sturdy enough to withstand being a cover, whether a trumpet solo or a busker’s guitar piece (solo electric guitar interpretation by Jake Reichbart here). Its verse melody, a dance of mild leaps and modest falls, suits a lyric crafted for common use. In the verses, an older man regrets the paths he’s taken; in the choruses, he dares to hope a new love can give his life meaning. It’s Bowie’s “September Song.”

But “Thursday’s Child” wasn’t hip; it didn’t offer any pretense that it was—it sat in a comfortable present tense and stewed on the past. It felt genteel and a bit shabby. After a few years of running across stages in his bottle imp incarnation, after his stabs at industrial and jungle, after all the interviews about Damien Hirst and body scarifications and Millennial doom and Internet-as-cultural-dynamite, Bowie suddenly turned up as the sad clown again. He’d dusted off his Buster Keaton suit and reclaimed the shadow bloodline of his “rock” one: the Bowie of “When I Live My Dream” and “As The World Falls Down,” the cabaret and mime Bowie, the “light entertainment” regional thespian, the bedsit saddo, the Mod who worshiped Judy Garland and Eartha Kitt (see below).

The singer of “Thursday’s Child” is another of the Pierrots he’d played since the Sixties: a perpetual loser at love, like the glum figure of his “Be My Wife” promo. Take the Mr. Pitiful tone of the opening verse—

All of my life I’ve tried so hard
doing the best with what I had:
nothing much happened all the same…

—with its most desperate emphases (“best,” “hope”) cued to gloomy B minor chords, while the verse’s circular structure strands the singer back where he started, on an augmented E major (“breaking my life in two”). You can take the song as a straight-faced lament, as a quietly over-the-top spoof of the same, or both (it is Bowie, after all).

And while the chorus offers a hope of release from the cycle, its alternation of F# majors (“falling”) and F# minors (“really got,” “my past”) suggest the hope’s rather thin. The repetitions of “throw me tomorrow” start to feel desperate; Bowie’s “everything’s falling into place!” is someone trying to hypnotize himself. It’s as if Bowie’s answering Joni Mitchell:

It’s got me hoping for the future
And worrying about the past

earthak

Ours was the most exciting show that had hit London since the war…I was glad that I was born in a part of the world that had been so well protected, but I was also ashamed of my protection. I carried guilt inside for being a privileged character when the rest of the world was being destroyed.

Eartha Kitt, Thursday’s Child, 1956.

This song, I might point out, is not actually about Eartha Kitt.

Bowie, 1999.

He’d taken the song’s title from Eartha Kitt, Bowie said upon introducing “Thursday’s Child” on VH1 Storytellers. Writing the song, he’d recalled the paperback cover of her first autobiography (“it just kind of bubbled up the other month”). It had been an erotic memory of his youth (that and D.H. Lawrence, he said).* Using Kitt as a starting point suited Hours’ theme of a middle-aged assessment of lost youth, a 50-year-old flipping through a box of mold-speckled records shipped from his childhood home (Ray Charles’ “Lucky Old Sun” —a man stuck in the middle of life and envying death—also gets a nod).

The title also plays with an old prediction rhyme—“Thursday’s child has far to go” (another variant is “Thursday’s child is merry and glad”)—that had come out of the ground somewhere in medieval England. The rhyme was a popular corruption of court astrology: Thursday was considered a day of great fortune as it was under the sway of Jupiter, kingpin of gods. The Book of Knowledge, by one Erra Pater (1745), notes a “child born on Thursday shall arrive to Great Honour and Dignity” (By contrast, David Robert Jones was born on a Wednesday “full of woe”).**

So the refrain of “Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday born, I was Thursday’s Child” was Bowie spading up his old occult interests, presenting them in anodyne forms: the little boxes tucked away on a newspaper’s comics page: horoscopes, birth stones, fortunes, lucky numbers (see “Seven”). It’s the “secret histories” of the Sixties reduced to syndicated copy; it’s another diminishing of unearthly power into ordinary life.

It’s also a clever way to cloud the lyric. What to make of the chorus kicker: “only for you I don’t regret/that I was Thursday’s child“? It’s at odds with the picture the singer’s painted so far: that he’s someone for whom little’s worked out, someone who’s estranged from everyday life yet firmly stuck within it (“He’s a teethgrinding, I’ll-get-this-job-done guy,” Bowie said of the narrator). (It’s also possible that, as Nicholas Pegg noted, Bowie’s referencing the VU’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties“: “For Thursday’s child is Sunday’s clown.“) But a Thursday’s child would be a lucky child: someone with pull, some who had far to go: a Kitt, or a Bowie.

ekitt

Go back to Eartha Kitt for a moment. Born in South Carolina, she’d reinvented herself in the early Fifties as a nightclub goddess who’d seemingly flown in from the Continent; she played the seductress, the gold-digger with taste (“Santa Baby”) who captured men with her boxful of languages. She’d be cast in that role for the rest of her days: a life spent forever vamping. But what a role! As her biographer John L. Williams wrote of her performance of “Monotonous” in the film New Faces: Eartha is playing a character that’s almost unimaginable in reality [in 1954]: a black American woman who’s tasted all of the world’s delicacies and found them lacking…we wonder, who on earth is this woman? And how can she seem to be so indifferent to the laws and mores of her time? A question that could have been asked, with a gender change, about another performer in 1973.

So maybe the singer is someone like Kitt: not some teeth-grinding anonymous drone but a bright public figure, someone whose name everyone knows, someone to whom things seem have come easily. Doing the best with what I had becomes a modest boast; shuffling days and lonely nights are those of a stage life. Or maybe even the common life of an office drone is a stage life. Bowie had called himself “the Actor,” but in a way, we’re all actors.

tc

Composed in Bermuda in late 1998, “Thursday’s Child” appears to have been mainly Bowie’s work, written on acoustic guitar. It was earmarked as a potential single, with a prominent role for backing singers. The question of who those should be became a bit contentious once Bowie and Gabrels were back in New York.

After toying with having Mark Plati’s six-year-old daughter sing the “Inchworm”-inspired “Monday, Tuesday..” line (she turned Bowie down! “she said she’d rather sing with her friends than with grown-ups,” Plati told David Buckley), Bowie thought of contacting the trio TLC. In 1999, they were arguably the premier female R&B vocal group of the decade. But they were tottering. Rife with personality and financial squabbles and having taken five years to cut their follow-up LP, they were about to be dethroned by Destiny’s Child.

Using TLC sat poorly with Gabrels, who thought it stunk of Bowie’s “New Jack Swing” moves in 1992: “Thursday’s Child” could be another potential Al B. Sure! fiasco. Gabrels had positioned himself as the house purist: some faint analogue in the Bowie camp to Steve Albini. He’d met Bowie during the nadir of Never Let Me Down and he saw it as his charge to keep Bowie honest and weird, to stop him from embarrassing himself by chasing trends after their sell-by date. During the making of ‘Hours’ Gabrels came to feel that his time with Bowie was over (we’ll get into this more in next week’s entry); his veto of TLC would be his last strategic win.

His alternative proposal had a touch of self-interest: he recommended a Boston friend, Holly Palmer, who Bowie auditioned via speakerphone (“let’s hear it with more vibrato now”). You could argue that Palmer’s vocals were just as time-stamped as any TLC vocals would have been: the Liz Fraser-inspired vocalese, the coffee-shop ambiance (a slightly edgier Dido). But Bowie liked what he heard and Palmer joined his touring band in 1999-2001.**

Another question was how far to take the production. David Buckley argued that the song was “crying out for strings,” and the various synthesizer fill-ins for woodwinds, strings and brass can make the song seem stuck in an embryonic state. Had Bowie held “Thursday’s Child” back for what he was calling the “Visconti album,” slated for 2000, it likely would’ve had a much grander production. Perhaps what kept “Thursday’s Child” from being a monstrous hit was that it hedged its bets too much.

dbb

The last piece was Walter Stern’s video. “Bowie,” with little makeup to mask his plus-fifty face, and his partner prepare for bed. They brush their teeth, she takes out her contacts (verrry slooowly). There’s a naturalist feel to counter the tasteful Wiliams Sonoma bedroom set: you hear Bowie cough, mumble and half-sing over the recorded track (taken from Elvis Costello’s “I Wanna Be Loved” video), and the plash of water in the sink. He looks in the mirror, transfixed by his aged but still beautiful face; he’s a veteran Narcissist. A twist of the glass and he sees younger versions of himself and his partner.

The mirror pair have the easy, arrogant confidence of youth; they stare at the older couple with the cold pity of  what Bowie once called “the coming race.” They seem like beautiful wraiths. Bowie, seemingly infatuated with his younger self, does the Marx Brothers Duck Soup mirror game with him. The double plays along for a while, then stops, bored and disgusted with his older self. We passed upon the stair, Bowie had sung long ago, upon meeting another double. He’d been on his way up then, his life still mostly potential. This is the other end of the staircase: a man realizing that time has changed him, that the majority share of his life lies behind him now, that his younger self would’ve regarded the current him like some threadbare costume. Perhaps that was the right question to ask after all: What happened to that guy? He kisses his wife in his imagination, and so to bed.

Recorded ca. April-May 1999, Seaview Studio, Bermuda; overdubs at Chung King Studio and/or Looking Glass Studio, NYC. Released 20 September 1999 (Virgin 7243 8 96265 2 0, UK #16). BowieNet members voted on the single mix, though both the “Radio Edit” (their choice) and the “Rock Mix” (guitars trace over the synths; Bowie lead vocal sounds like it’s being routed through a metal tube in places; gargle-orgasm-drum fill break) were included on the UK/EC CD single; a “Hip Hop Mix” was never released. A longer (by ten seconds) version appeared in the Omikron: The Nomad Soul game: this version, titled the “Omikron Slower (sic) Version” was included on the 2004 reissue of ‘Hours,’ as was the Rock Mix. Performed live throughout Bowie’s promotional tour of 1999 and once in 2000, at his Roseland Ballroom concert on Bloomsday.

* Seeing that Thursday’s Child was also one of the Kitt LPs released in Britain in the Fifties, and that the title song’s lyric has some affinities to Bowie’s, it seems likely Bowie recalled the record as well.)

** The rhyme was tinkered with during the 19th Century, perhaps to bring it more in line with Christianity, with Friday now “full of woe” and Sunday getting some of Thursday’s former glory.

*** Dorsey, Palmer and Emm Gryner made the most handsome Bowie stage lineup since DB and Mick Ronson.

Top: Liz Johnson-Artur, “Peckham, 1999.”