During his first US tour, Bowie had written sharp, vicious rockers (“Jean Genie,” “Cracked Actor,” “Watch That Man”). Yet by the time he returned to the UK in December 1972, something had changed. The final songs he wrote for the Aladdin Sane LP were sprawling, piano-centered mood pieces: the title track, “Lady Grinning Soul” and “Time.”
Some biographers claim Bowie found life as a newly-minted rock star maddening and constricting, so he began writing “art” songs to break out of rock & roll’s confines. That’s possible, though a more likely influence was Bowie’s new pianist, Mike Garson, who could play in any style and who had an intuitive sense for accompaniment. Unlike Bowie’s other major pianist to date, Rick Wakeman, whose relationship with Bowie was entirely in the studio, Garson first played with Bowie on the road. So Bowie became fluent in Garson’s style (the two would sometimes play in hotel bars after shows, on standards like “My Funny Valentine”) and he soon began writing for Garson as he did for Mick Ronson. (One could argue Bowie was already thinking about how to replace Ronson.)
Garson grew up in Brooklyn in the ’50s and, until his mid-teens, had intended to become a rabbi. Instead, he became a touring musician—first in the Catskills with the likes of Jackie Mason, then in New York, where he played in jazz clubs and backed Martha and the Vandellas. Bowie arrived in New York in September ’72 and put out the word that he needed a touring pianist, and one of Garson’s friends recommended he audition. Garson went into a room he later described as being full of men with rainbow hair wearing circus clothes, and got the gig after playing eight bars of “Changes.”
“Time,” which Bowie allegedly wrote in New Orleans during a stop there in mid-November 1972, opens with an 8-bar intro in which Garson plays what he later described as a stride piano line “a little left field, with an angle.” Stride had developed in the early ’20s —it generally meant playing a set of beats with the left hand while the right hand improvised on melody. Garson’s version of stride is overly stylized, aided by Ken Scott’s production, which pushes Garson to the front of the mix (mainly in one speaker) and emphasizes his tone’s treble qualities, so much that Garson sometimes sounds like a player piano (Scott is also responsible for mixing in two bars of heavy Bowie breathing after a verse).
The final track is an elaborate duet between Ronson and Garson. Each generally comps while the other solos, though they also strike against each other (take the way Garson’s rainfall of piano notes (after “I had so many dreams”) is followed by a Ronson waltzing guitar line). Or how, in the intro repeat midway through the track, Garson’s fractured stride piano line is answered by Ronson making three whinnying runs on his guitar. It’s a masterful dual performance. Ronson winds up quoting from Beethoven’s Ninth and Garson plays a free-time solo buried in the mix during the repeated ‘LA-la-la-la-LA-la-LA-la” outro.
“Time” is an odd composition: its chorus (if it even has one) is wordless; its bridge converts into a chorus/outro; and it has three verse variations, each of which repeat after the Ronson/Garson solo. The first set goes from “Time, he’s waiting in the wings” to “his trick is you and me, boy” and is mainly Bowie’s vocal over Garson’s stride piano and Trevor Bolder’s bass. The second variant, a more harmonically complex version of the first (it still goes from E minor to F to end in C, but there are more chords along the way), features the entrance of the full band. The third is harmonically different (going from C up to G, down to C again), and Bowie sings it at full drama (beginning with “the sniper in the brain”, or, later, “breaking up is hard”).
Then there’s Bowie’s lyric, which is terrible. You could read the most notorious lines (“time, he flexes like a whore/falls wanking to the floor”) as Bowie personifying positions on a clock’s face, but they were likely conceived more as grotesque mime imagery (one shudders to imagine Bowie performing it—his backing dancers threaten to in the 1980 Floor Show performance). The lyric is all pathetic adolescent cod-profundity—masturbation as a kind of philosophy (“I looked at my watch, it said 9:25/and I think, ‘oh God I’m still alive!’ oh, shut up).
Still, buried underneath Bowie’s dreadful language is a real sense of mourning. Bowie wrote “Time” after hearing about the death of the New York Dolls’ drummer Billy Murcia, who he had met a few months earlier. Murcia had a messy, stupid rock & roll death, asphyxiating after being force-fed coffee (his friends were trying to prevent him from sleeping after Murcia took too many barbiturates). Bowie references “Billy Dolls” being taken by “time” and in later verses seems to return to him (“perhaps you’re smiling now, smiling through this darkness” etc).
“Time” worked best on stage, where it served as recitative between the hard rock songs—a moment for Bowie to take a breath, smoke a cigarette, play the weary roué. So it’s no surprise the song was central to Bowie’s two most theatrical tours—the 1974 Diamond Dogs show, where Bowie sang “Time” sitting cross-legged behind an enormous black hand (a performance which veers close to Lily Von Schtupp territory), and the 1987 Glass Spider tour, where Bowie was borne aloft to the top of the infamous spider wearing fiberglass angel wings.
Recorded ca. 15-24 January 1973. It led off Aladdin Sane‘s second side and RCA issued an edit as a single in the US (radio stations bleeped “Quaaludes” but let “wanking” go through), where it failed to chart.
Top: New Orleans, 1972.