Cactus

July 28, 2014

01darko

Cactus (The Pixies, 1988).
Cactus (The Pixies, live, 1989).
Cactus (Bowie, 2002).
Cactus (The Today Show, 2002).
Cactus (Live By Request, 2002).
Cactus (live, 2002).
Cactus (The Tonight Show (Bowie with Moby), 2002).
Cactus (VH1 Awards, 2002).
Cactus (broadcast, 2002).
Cactus (Quelli Che…Il Calcio, 2002).
Cactus (Hypershow, 2002).
Cactus (TV5, (interview w/live performance, 2003).
Cactus (live, 2004).

When he was 20, Charles “Black Francis” Thompson went to Puerto Rico for a semester abroad. He didn’t go to class. “I got real skinny—went to the beach, to movies and hung out in weird places,” one of which was a sailor’s brothel, where he’d “watch this massive barroom, full of these sailors and these slithering whores. They’d circle the room like vultures, seeing who was ready to fuck in the back room…It was like it had been that way for a hundred years and nothing had changed,” he told Mojo.

Sex was everywhere he looked in Puerto Rico, except his bedroom. “The one person who seemed to want to fuck me was this 65-year-old man, an expat Brit, an antique bookseller.” The girl Thompson had a crush on was in love with a local guy, and he was too broke and scared to do anything at the portside brothel. “I just wasn’t getting any love, man! Puerto Rico!” During his stay he wrote a postcard to Joey Santiago, his friend back at UMASS, saying they should start a band.

A lot of Pixies songs came out of Puerto Rico, Thompson said, like “Crackity Jones,” about a strange roommate. “Cactus” had its roots there as well, with its isolation, sexual deprivation, longing and revulsion. A man is locked up somewhere—a prison cell, an asylum—writing a letter to a woman he’s obsessed with (does she even know him?). He’s got a letter from her, he says, but it’s just words. He wants her flesh, her scents—the salty tang of her blood. He wants her to send him her soiled dresses, to go outside (or to another state) and rub her hand against a cactus. Because he can’t even feel pain anymore. It’s a desire for contact, for evidence of any physical act, sung by man caged like an ape.

The Pixies recorded “Cactus” in 1988 for Surfer Rosa, working with Steve Albini, who miked the room and recorded some band conversations, a few of which were used as between-song segues, and had them bring amps and gear down to the cement bathroom for better reverb (“we were in a factory building and it was a giant urinal for, like 100 guys,” recalled John Lupner, the studio assistant). “Cactus” was just a thudding shift between two power chords,* a bassline in lockstep with the guitar and a drum pattern that sounded like a man pounding on a wooden door for two minutes.

Pixies

I thought it was a hell of a shame that America didn’t recognize its own with the Pixies. They broke up virtually penniless. I mean, they were so important but they never meant a thing outside New York and Los Angeles.

Bowie, Time Off, 2002.

By the time he recorded Heathen, Bowie had been talking up the Pixies for nearly 15 years—he’d performed “Debaser” live with Tin Machine back in ’91, when the Pixies were still a going concern (if barely). He’d often described them as the great American band that America didn’t recognize. It was especially galling around the end of the century, when the hushed-verse/power-refrain Pixies formula was everywhere you looked on the “modern rock” charts.

Covering “Cactus” was an inspired choice, as it was one of the Pixies songs to most disclose their debt to the Stooges, from the chord progression (tonic chord (E5) to flatted III chord (G5), a standard Ron Asheton move (see “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “1970,” “Real Cool Time”)) to the Asheton-esque guitar by Joey Santiago (the great little coda solo that shrugs off after a few notes) to Black Francis’ vocal and lyric, which was Iggy Pop’s lust and dominance games projected inward.

And Bowie also knew a glam song when he saw it, despite the austerity of Albini’s “Cactus” mix. The Pixies stole from T. Rex’s “The Groover” for the chanted “P! I! X! I! E! S!”, naturally amended here to “D! A! V! I! D!”**. Bowie’s versions, studio and live, kicked off with a guitar itching to tear into the “Get It On” riff. He bumped the song up to A major and did his usual octave-doubled backing vocals (he was playing both Kim Deal and Black Francis—very Bowie) with the EMS Synthi AKS “briefcase” synthesizer as choir.

Where Black Francis sounded like a man repulsed by himself, a man who wished he could steal someone else’s skin and shroud himself in it (the chemistry of the Pixies was in part the shambling lead male singer secretly wishing he could be his bassist, who stood to his left on stage, coolly oblivious to him, having a whale of a time), Bowie made the character delight in his depravity—it’s the nastiest old man he ever played, making his work on the revived “Liza Jane” look like a pencil sketch. Send it to meeee!

Apart from Tony Visconti on bass, the whole track was Bowie: acoustic and electric guitars, EMS Synthi,*** piano (heir to John Cale’s pounding contribution to the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog”) and his only recorded drum performance, with shaky hi-hat and thudding kick drum. It was the closest he’d come to Diamond Dogs in a generation (see the whining lead line at 1:29). Suggesting that the older you get, the dirtier you get, Bowie’s “Cactus” was a carnal relief from the Grand Old Man-isms of much of Heathen. A triumph: one of his best covers.

Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 June 2002 on Heathen.

* With a little rising turnaround of A minor (“take off your”), C (“dress”), D (“send it to”) back to E5 (“meeeee”). Bowie made this sequence Dm9-F-G-A.

** Turned into “B! L! A! C! K!” in Bowie and Moby’s performance on the Tonight Show.

*** The same synth Eno had used on Low and “Heroes.” “A friend very kindly bought me the original EMS AKS briefcase synth…It was up for auction, and I got it for my fiftieth birthday,” Bowie said in 2002. “Everything on the EMS is miniaturized beyond belief; nothing like it existed at the time. Taking it through customs has always been a stomach-turning affair as it looks like a briefcase bomb in the X-ray. Eno got pulled out of the line on several occasions. I wouldn’t even dream of taking it through these days.

Sources: Frank Black quotes from Mojo, May 2014; Josh Frank and Caryn Ganz, Fool the World: The Oral History of a Band Called Pixies.

Top: Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone and a big rabbit (Donnie Darko, Kelly 2001); Pixies, 1988.


I’ve Been Waiting For You

May 5, 2014

2001oyos

I’ve Been Waiting For You (Neil Young, 1968).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (The Pixies, 1990).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (Tin Machine, live, 1991).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (Neil Young, live, 2001.)
I’ve Been Waiting For You (Bowie, 2002).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (Live By Request, 2002).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (live, 2002).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (live, 2002).
I’ve Been Waiting For You (live, 2003).

The Sixties are definitely not with us anymore…the change into the music of the Seventies is starting to come with people like David Bowie and Lou Reed…they don’t expect to live more than thirty years and they don’t care. And they don’t care. They’re in the Seventies. What I’m tryin’ to say is these people like Lou Reed and Davie Booie or Bowie, however you pronounce it, those folks—I think they got somethin’ there, heh heh. Take a walk on the wild side!

Neil Young, 1973.

Sometime in June 2001, David Bowie drove up from New York City to West Nyack, where Tony Visconti had a modest studio in a modest house. His girlfriend cracked that Bowie would step out of his limo, take one look at their place, say that he’d forgotten something in NYC and head home. Instead, Bowie was Visconti’s lodger for a few days.

Since the late Nineties, the two had planned to make an album but Bowie had felt the times, and his moods, hadn’t been right. Now he’d cooled to a proper degree. He was in the vestibule of life, an eye on each door. That April, his mother had died at 88. A month later, Freddi Burretti, his former project, muse and costume designer, had died of cancer at age 49. And he was a father again at 54, with an infant daughter at home.

Meeting in NYC earlier that spring, Bowie and Visconti spent a day listening to recent albums (Beck’s Midnite Vultures, among others) and “looking for little creative tags to incorporate for the new album,” Visconti wrote in his autobiography. Struck by how Bowie had harnessed old addictions into socially acceptable habits, brewing pot after strong pot of coffee on the hour (he was even trying to shake cigarettes), Visconti wrote: “I couldn’t help thinking how great it was that we’d survived the indulgences of rock ‘n’ roll. We were alive and sober.”

Alive and Sober could’ve been the new album’s title. Visconti found in Bowie, with whom he hadn’t worked on an LP since the Carter administration, a new deliberateness that could pass for maturity. “His knowledge of harmonic and chordal structure had vastly improved,” he said. “This had already been good when I last worked with him, but now there was more depth to his melodic and harmonic writing.”

Aware that “Bowie and Visconti” would generate scads of expectations for fans and the aging portion of the music press, the pair figured that some measure of grandiosity was inevitable. So Visconti proposed a “magnum opus” concept: a group of songs sharing an autumnal feel, fattened with “layers of layers of overdubs,” which suited Bowie’s introspective mood (he was still expecting Toy to be issued any month). But Bowie was adamant that he wanted the album to sound fresh, not to traffic in expected memory. It would be compared to Scary Monsters, sure, but it shouldn’t sound like Scary Monsters. It would be old age made new.

In West Nyack, they cut four demos in Visconti’s loft studio. Visconti had started using Pro Tools and Logic Pro, and he took pains to show Bowie how the software worked. “I cut up beats and sections of a song, made beat loops and pasted them in other places.”

The next day they drove north, up to the Catskill mountains, where there was a recording studio called Allaire.

allare

A swath of the Hudson River Valley and the hunched shoulders of the Catskills is something of a rock ‘n’ roll historical theme park. The Band’s “Big Pink” house is in West Saugerties; Steely Dan’s Annandale-on-Hudson and Barrytown are across the river; Mercury Rev‘s Opus 40 is off the NY Thruway; the former Bearsville Studios (Todd Rundgren, etc.) is near Woodstock, where Dylan once crashed his motorcycle on Striebel Road. Off to the west is Bethel, where the Woodstock Festival took place (its 1994 sequel was in Saugerties, the catastrophic 1999 edition farther upstate, in Rome).

Southwest of Woodstock is Mount Tonche, atop whose crest the Pittsburgh Plate Glass heir Raymond Pitcairn built a summer manse, Glen Tonche, in 1928. Pitcairn, a devoted enemy of the New Deal and foe of indulgences like child labor laws, erected an 18,000-square-foot hideaway with a commanding view of the Ashokan Reservoir. Its fleets of rooms were garnished with what Bowie described as “very American but aristocratic pieces of work,” like sections of yachts: it’s as though a tide of wealth had ebbed through the house, leaving behind a wrack of costly toys.

The Pitcairn family sold Glen Tonche in the mid-Nineties to the musician Randall Wallace, who converted some rooms, like a dining hall blessed with 40-foot-high ceilings, into recording studios.*

Bowie and Visconti, who’d been tipped off about Wallace’s Allaire Studios by the guitarist David Torn, were on a reconnaissance visit. They were stunned by the place, by its imposing isolation. “This is not cute, on top of this mountain: it’s stark and it has a Spartan quality about it,” Bowie recalled. Though not far from Woodstock, Allaire seemed to exist in another sylvan dimension: a luxurious human colony nestled in a wood-world of black bear, wild pigs and deer.

It was almost an epiphany that I had,” Bowie told Interview in June 2002. “Walking through the door, everything that my album should be about was galvanized for me into one focal point…I knew what the lyrics were already. They were all suddenly accumulated in my mind.”

As we’ll see, the area’s feeling of refuge appealed to Bowie. In the following years, he’d buy a whole side of a mountain in the area, and he’s still up in the Woodstock region, an occasional sight at local coffee shops.

allaire

At Allaire, Bowie and Visconti ran into the drummer Matt Chamberlain, who was recording an album with Natalie Merchant and T-Bone Burnett at the time, and they quickly decided to recruit him. Having booked their drummer and their studio, the pair began work in July 2001, with Bowie settling his family in a cottage on the grounds.

The album that became Heathen was (initially) one of the more sparsely-assembled works of Bowie’s recorded life. It was The Buddha of Suburbia in a grander key. For the first sessions at Allaire, the players were only Bowie (guide vocals, guitars, keyboards, Stylophone, even occasional drums), Visconti (bass, guitar, recorder) and Chamberlain (drums, loops). A routine fell into place. Bowie rose at 5 or 6 AM to work on songs in the studio or write lyrics, while Visconti and Chamberlain woke at a more civilized hour, exercised and showed up around 10:30 AM, upon which Bowie would present them with their “songs of the day,” Visconti said. As dinner at Allaire was 7 PM sharp, that marked the cut-off point. Bowie would keep working at night while Visconti and Chamberlain watched DVDs or sacked out early. “This certainly wasn’t a rock ‘n’ roll life, by any stretch of the imagination,” Visconti wrote.

Still, the pace was vigorous enough that in roughly two weeks the trio cut basic tracks for 19 songs. Bowie wrote a sequence of brooding, lengthy pieces early in the sessions, so as to get the heavy stuff out of the way first, he said (see the next four entries). But he’d also drafted a list of prospective covers that he’d wanted to try.

Over the years, this blog hasn’t been very kind to Bowie’s covers. The likes of “Across the Universe,” “God Only Knows,” “Bang Bang,” “Kingdom Come,” “I Keep Forgettin’,” “It Ain’t Easy” and so on form a rather grim canon. But now there was an urgency, a lightness to his covers on Heathen (and Reality). Maybe all of his lyrical dwellings on cyclicality and fleeting time played a part; maybe, rather than just singing over some track that his musicians cooked up, actually working out songs on guitar or keyboard let him take firmer root in the compositions. Something had fallen away, some bitter strain of ambition, some habit of overthinking that had hobbled so many of his earlier takes of others’ songs. He became an inspired interpreter at last; he sounded at home singing someone else’s lines.

roskilde

The three covers on Heathen, along with being spry lightweights set against the slab-like big bruiser tracks, were memory tokens. So start with Neil Young’s “I’ve Been Waiting For You.” This was Bowie paying a debt to an old influence (he’d been consumed with Young while writing Hunky Dory: you can hear Young’s melodies and phrasings in “Kooks” and “Bombers,” even “Bewlay Brothers”) as well as a nod to his departed collaborator Reeves Gabrels. Tin Machine had played “I’ve Been Waiting For You” during its 1991-92 tour, with Gabrels on lead vocal and wearying lead guitar.

On Earthling‘s “Dead Man Walking,” Bowie had toyed with the image of Young and Crazy Horse converting rock and roll into some earth-worshiping religion; old men stomping about on stage like Tolkien’s Ents. Bowie also used Young as a map of how to age in a music where old age is a personal failing. As he told the Kansas City Star (9 May 2004):

When things go bad, I’ve always looked to my peers and, in a way, my musical mentors to see what they’ve done in similar situations. Neil Young and Bob Dylan have done similar things: They have both made a few disastrous albums, but they always end up coming back to the point of what they started in the first place. You’ve got to go back to what you were doing when you were rooting around with experimentation, ideas that are going to work for me, not my audience.

folder

Singing “I’ve Been Waiting For You” had another angle. The track was from Young’s 1968 debut album. Much like Deram’s David Bowie, Neil Young is a first impression of a mutable performer, the work of an ambitious, dreamy man who’d struck loose from a band and wanted to sound out his whims. So Young and David Briggs had rotated through Los Angeles studios during summer 1968, cutting overdubs, playing games in the mixes (a favorite move was to shimmer guitars back and forth across the stereo spectrum) and spending days on guitar tones (“that record is a masterpiece of tones,” Briggs later told Jimmy McDonough. “We got tones nobody’s ever got except Hendrix.”). Young’s debut has an piece for string quartet, dolorous folkie ballads, unending folkie ballads, a Western movie theme and a few beautiful obsessional songs devoted to a typical set of unattainable, mystifying women.

The latter songs channeled Jimi Hendrix, of whom Young was in awe (“there was no one even in the same building as that guy,” he later said of Hendrix). In particular there was “I’ve Been Waiting for You,” with its “Foxy Lady”-esque heavy breathing and its squall of a guitar solo, for which Young’s guitar was sent through an organ’s Leslie speaker and then piped directly into the soundboard.

Anchored in A minor, the song’s reappearing D9 chord (“for a woman,” “with the feeling“) is a liberation declined: instead of using the D9 as a means to brighten into A major (or move to D), the song sinks back into A minor. It reflects how Young’s been passively waiting for some life-redeeming woman, who’s always just about to appear and never does. (Also take how the intro/later chorus opens with a D suspended 2nd chord that aches to resolve to D major but the sequence instead cools into, naturally, A minor). A brief obsessional, “I’ve Been Waiting for You” is a single verse, a refrain with a descending chromatic bassline for drama (“waiting for you...and you’ve been coming to mee“) and Young’s piped anguish via guitars.

On Neil Young, the track was the future: the Neil Young of the Seventies (and 2000s) roamed around in its confines. Everything Young would become was corked in it; the feel and the weight of his grand old age was there already, summoned up in a track that a 23-year-old cut in summer 1968, happily oblivious to what would become his life.

R-1556857-1228166141

Bowie knew the track from his days listening to Young, but “I’ve Been Waiting for You” was also one of Kim Deal’s favorite Neil Young songs. During the Bossanova sessions, the Pixies knocked off a version of the song and issued it as a B-side. They dumped the loping bassline/clopping drums of the Young original (the rhythm section was Poco, basically) for a drum track that was all hard business. Black Francis and Joey Santiago warred over it. Deal sang blankly, indulging in none of Young’s mystics; there was a cold rasp in how she delivered “a woman with a feeling…of losing once or twice.” Though playing the searcher, she had some sympathy for the pursued.

So for his cover, Bowie used the Pixies’ structure of recycling half the verse after the solo and halving the solo’s length, and he added a few Tin Machine flavors, like the wailing harmony vocals that he’d sung to buttress Gabrels on stage (here, they were a distorted-sounding synthetic “choir,” an effect he’d use on “Sunday,” among other tracks).

He recruited for lead guitar Dave Grohl (it was a mailbox transaction: Bowie sent the tapes to Grohl, who recorded his parts and sent them back), who was working up his current role as genial Gen X ambassador from classic rock. Grohl’s playing was fine if not memorable, with Grohl worrying the solo’s underlying chords in a less cheeky way than Santiago had on the Pixies version. Bowie should’ve had a go at the guitars himself (for all we know, he did): his whining Diamond Dogs tone would have been an nice spice in the mix.

The guitars came under fire from the drums, with Chamberlain’s dominant position in the mix seemingly won in battle. In the verse, Bowie sounded more callow than Young had in 1968 but in the refrains, a second vocal sunk down an octave gave his hopes a dimension of menace. How long has he been waiting, after all? In the closing refrain, Bowie sang “long time now” as if he could taste every hour of every wasted year. Having thrashed and wailed for three minutes, the track gave up the ghost with an unmoored bassline, a guitar clanging like a ship’s bell and the choir of bottled voices snuffed out in a breath.

Recorded: (basic tracks, vocals) August-September 2001, Allaire Studios, Shokan, New York; (guitar solo) Dave Grohl’s home studio, ca. October 2001; (overdubs) October 2001-January 2002, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. Released 10 June 2002 on Heathen and also as a Canadian-only CD single (Columbia 38K 3369).

* The Glen Tonche estate has been up for sale for years: it’s yours for $4.5 million.

Top: Vassilis D. Gonis, from series “Christina Hoyos at Lycabetus Hill Theater,” Athens, 2001. (“I started this blog…to send my photos out there to the world with the hope of communication and as a motivation to keep clear away from the depressing feeling that comes along with the economic crisis in Greece.”); Walters-Storyk Design Group, Allaire Studios, New York (from without; from within); Neil Young at Roskilde Festival, 2001; Bowie’s philtrum as CD single art.


Outside

March 14, 2013

katmandu

Now (Tin Machine, live, 1989).
Outside.
Outside (first live performance, 1995).
Outside (live, 1995).
Outside (live, Loreley, 1996).
Outside (live, Gail Ann Dorsey vocal, 1997).

Basically I haven’t liked a lot of music I’ve been doing in the past few years. I forgot that I’m not a musician and never have been. I’ve always wanted to be a film director.” So Bowie told the 17 year-old Cameron Crowe, during an interview in Los Angeles in May 1975. While much of what Bowie said to Crowe was cocaine-fueled gibberish, the baiting of a young, credulous journalist, this small self-insight explains in part what happened to a record that Bowie made two decades later.

If you consider Outside as an art film in the guise of an album, then the revisions Bowie made to the project in early 1995—essentially “normalizing” the record with a set of new, catchier songs that had little, if anything, to do with his original art-murder-anti-narrative—were the equivalent of a reshoot, recasting players and cutting a new edit. It’s as though Bowie had been his own test audience, and had found the material lacking after a poor screening. And sure, he was looking for a label to distribute the album, which would be an easier sell if it was a collection of “David Bowie songs with weird spoken bits” rather than 20-minute collages of song-slivers and weird spoken bits.

So, back to work. One of Bowie’s first moves was to reclaim a lost Tin Machine song, “Now,” which Bowie had co-written with the Machine’s fifth member, the guitarist Kevin Armstrong.* “Now” was played only twice during the Machine’s brief 1989 tour, and it’s unknown whether the band cut a version of song in the studio for either of their records (no takes are circulating).

“Now” itself revised the past: it developed out of Bowie’s reworking of “Look Back in Anger” in 1988, his first collaboration with Reeves Gabrels.** “Now,” in its live performances, began and closed with the pummeling guitar maelstrom from the revised “Anger.” Midway through, the song downshifted into a set of moody eight-bar verses and bridges, built on an ascending four-note bass hook. One reason “Now” didn’t make the grade, apparently, was that Bowie wasn’t happy with some of the verses he’d written (he apologized to the crowd on the song’s debut): “Ah! I need your love! Talk about love!” was a bit too Sammy Hagar for his liking.

But Bowie had a habit of keeping his potentially strong songs on retainer, holding back on finishing the pieces until he felt the mood was right (most notably “Bring Me the Disco King,” a song that he kicked around for nearly a decade). So perhaps rather than waste “Now” as an album track on Tin Machine II, he felt it was meant for grander things. And so it was: Bowie turned “Now” into the title song/overture/prologue to his art rock concept record.

While there’s a domesticated version of the “Look Back in Anger” intro as a lead-in, “Outside” itself is fairly muted, reserved—Bowie holds off on moving to his high register until the second bridge, and doesn’t use his octave double-tracking until the third verse. (On stage, he usually sang the first verses and bridges seated, then rose to his feet for the climactic section.) The track’s harmonic base is two “horn” lines, mixed left and right (they seem to be synthesizers, though it’s possible Bowie’s playing baritone saxophone on the right-mixed track), that parallel the ascending bassline, and what sounds like Carlos Alomar playing arpeggios on acoustic guitar—Gabrels comes in for the last two bridges, first shadowing the ascending horn/bassline, then soloing off of it. And “Outside” is driven by a tremendous performance by Joey Baron (possibly Sterling Campbell) on drums: the subtle shift in the drum pattern that triggers the moves to the bridges, or the machine-gun tom fills at 2:38. Along with the various fills, sweeteners and oddities—a tambourine in the first verse, chimes and congas in the second, Eno squiggles throughout—there’s a guitar solo that’s minimalist by Gabrels standards.

A line in “Now” about “going to the outskirts of town” possibly suggested the title change, but Bowie also had been talking up the merits of “outsider” art to interviewers, and there are a few lines in his revised lyric that call back to his and Eno’s trip to Gugging Asylum (“the crazed in the hot zone“). Meant as a curtain-raiser for the 17 tracks to come, “Outside” serves well enough as the album’s master of ceremonies. But it was also a statement of purpose for Bowie. After a decade of disappointments, bafflements and false starts, “Outside” was a public bid for attention, Bowie promising that this record was something new, that it was committed to the present:Now….not tomorrow…It happens today. In a rock culture so often devoted to nostalgia and past glories, it remains a worthy, if often ignored, demand.

“Now” debuted at the Machine’s 29 June 1989 show in the National Ballroom, Kilburn, and it opened the band’s set at St. George’s Hall, Bradford, UK, on 2 July 1989. These remain its only circulating performances. “Outside” was recorded ca. January-February 1995 at the Hit Factory, NYC. Bowie usually had Gail Ann Dorsey sing lead on it during the Earthling tour.

* Oddly enough, while Armstrong played on Outside (he’s credited for “Thru These Architects Eyes”), he apparently didn’t play on his own song, at least according to the credits and the bios.

** “Anger” was one of the few “classic” songs that Bowie played on the Outside tour.

Top: Takahiro Fujita, “Kathmandu, 1995.”


You’ve Been Around

September 20, 2012

You’ve Been Around (live, Tin Machine, 1989).
You’ve Been Around.
You’ve Been Around (video).
You’ve Been Around (Jack Dangers 12″ mix).
You’ve Been Around (Reeves Gabrels, with Bowie and Gary Oldman, 1995).

As “You’ve Been Around” was sequenced as the first vocal track to appear on Black Tie White Noise,* it was Bowie’s first “solo” statement in six years. Unsurprisingly, many took the song to be a pledge to his new wife or his latest self-reassessment, a fresh shareholder’s letter by an absentee owner (“I stay over many years/I should have thought of that,” plus a tossed-in reference to “Changes”). But “Around” was actually Bowie’s drastic revision of his recent past. The song dated to the start of Bowie’s collaboration with Reeves Gabrels in 1988. Tin Machine had even played it once on stage, at the start of their 1989 tour.

Bowie later said “Around” had never worked with Tin Machine, blaming in part his own obstinacy—he had refused to accept what the rest of the band wanted to do with the song, so it was shelved. He wound up holding it in reserve until he had the freedom to rethink the song, using a different cast of players. The BTWN version of “Around” didn’t alter much of Bowie’s cut-up-derived lyric (only a few lines were rejiggered, mainly for better ease of singing). What the remake did was effectively erase the song’s co-composer, Gabrels.

The original “You’ve Been Around,” as evidenced by its sole live recording and demo (the latter recycled by Gabrels on a solo record, see below), was built on one of Gabrels’ best guitar hooks of the period—a grungy ostinato figure that was the meat of the song, which was otherwise an oddly structured piece, with its rambling, barely-melodic verses trailing into brief refrain tags.

Bowie, working with Nile Rodgers, erased the riff from the equation, instead centering the track on a rhythmic base: a synthesizer “bed,” Barry Campbell’s pulsating bassline and a combination of live drums (either Pugi Bell or Sterling Campbell, the latter soon to become Bowie’s main drummer) and drum machine programming. He had Gabrels come in to provide the guitars and then perversely mixed him so low that he’s barely audible in places, while Bowie gave the main solo, which had been a gorgeous melodic run by Gabrels, to Lester Bowie’s elated trumpet. (Further burying Gabrels was Rodgers, who plays classic Chic-style rhythm guitar in the second verse and chorus). In a promo interview for the album, Bowie said: “I had the chance to mix Reeves way into the background. I thought that would doubtlessly really irritate him, which indeed it did.“**

The rethink of “Around” fit Bowie’s apparent overall intention for BTWN, which was to avoid easy pleasures, to the point of perversity at times; a seeming distrust of pop immediacy is all over the record. Here Bowie took a song that easily would have been a highlight of the first Tin Machine record, and one which just as easily could have been a bright, roaring album opener on BTWN, and converted it into a strange piece of art funk, offering a dance foundation for a four-chord drone in B minor (the refrain sinking deeper into E minor, with only a brief escape into F# major (“bad from wrong”)). “What I like about the first half of the song is that there’s no harmonic reference,” Bowie said. “It’s just drums, and the vocal comes out of nowhere—you’re not sure if it’s a melody line or a drone. It’s an ominous feeling.”

The first minute-and-a-half of “Around” seems bent on throwing off the listener (mind, this is after said listener has just sat through a five-minute instrumental). After a faded-in “ambient” synthesizer that occasionally breaks into static, there’s an intro baked out of fragments—ringing percussion, shards of guitar, a laconic bass. This in turn becomes the support of Bowie’s first verse, in which his voice, doubled by a distorted echo of himself, rambles through a series of disjunct phrases, some abruptly sinking by a fifth on the last note (“violent night“), some flat, all building to the tortured “viii-ooo-lin” that Bowie yanks across two bars and lets plummet by nearly an octave. The transition to the chorus comes without warning, the “you’ve been around” tag suddenly appearing in what at first seems to be another verse (the only cue is the now-grooving bassline).

Bowie’s performance, while not dissimilar to how he originally sang the piece, is channeling Scott Walker, the not-so-hidden muse of BTWN (we’ll get to “Nite Flights,” which will be a much-too-long look at Bowie and Walker’s three-decade conversation, towards the end of our survey). As with a few other tracks on BTWN, Bowie seems intent here on out-Walkering Walker here: the sepulchral crooning, the near-recitative top melodies, a sense of hermetic grandiosity. It’s crafting a sort of alternate-universe pop, one that speaks a dialect of pop but one which fundamentally seems cut off from its everyday conversation. “Around,” like much of the record it opened, is a strange private music in the guise of a public one.

As for Gabrels, he made his reply in 1995, refitting the original “Around” demo with some new guitar tracks, and, in a fine tit-for-tat, he replaced Bowie’s vocals in the second verse with the actor Gary Oldman (sounding a bit like Bono).

“You’ve Been Around” was played once on the first Tin Machine tour, at the opening show at The Globe, NYC, on 14 June 1989. The studio version was recorded ca. summer-autumn 1992, at Mountain Studios, Montreux, and/or The Power Station, NYC. Released in April 1993 on Black Tie White Noise. A remix of “Around” by Jack Dangers (Meat Beat Manifesto) was issued as the B-side of “Black Tie White Noise”; a longer edit of the remix is on the 2-CD/DVD 2003 reissue of the album. The Bowie/Oldman/Gabrels version is on Gabrels’ Sacred Squall of Now, 1995.

* BTWN opens, as we’ll soon see, with the instrumental “The Wedding,” although on the LP version, “Around” is the lead-off track, with “The Wedding” deleted for presumably space reasons (open Q: was anyone still buying new vinyl in 1993?).

** This was Gabrels’ only appearance on the record. While he’d also cut a solo for “I Feel Free,” it was wiped once Bowie recruited Mick Ronson for that track.

Top: Ed Newman, “Jolly Bunch Parade,” Treme, New Orleans, 1992.


End of Chapter Seven (1988-1991)

September 11, 2012

As the Tin Machine era doesn’t play well with others, it seems best to keep its rankings separate. So list your top ten or whatever you can muster from 1988-1991: choose the cream of the Machine. Mine are below (“Stamford Hill” is a stretch, as it was mainly recorded ca. 1995).

I Can’t Read.
Pretty Pink Rose.
Goodbye Mr. Ed.
Bus Stop.
Shopping for Girls.
Prisoner of Love
Exodus.
Baby Universal.
You Belong in Rock ‘n Roll.
Amlapura.
The King of Stamford Hill.

Top: Stefan Sahlander, “New York, 24 July 1991.”


Go Now

September 10, 2012

Go Now (Bessie Banks, 1964).
Go Now (The Moody Blues, 1965).
Go Now (Wings, 1976).
Go Now (Tin Machine, live, 1992).

At one point Bowie said Tin Machine would also be a three-album project. Does that mean there’s only one more record to go?

“He said that this was a three-album thing,” Tony Sales says. “It will take three albums, possibly, for people to start to understand where we’re coming from.”

Said Bowie last year: “I think our intention is to stay together as long as all of us have the same enthusiasm that we have now. I think once it starts to feel like a job, I think that’s the last thing we want to feel.

Roger Catlin, “Everything’s Hunky Dory With Bowie’s Tin Machine,” Hartford Courant, 24 November 1991.

After months of sporadic rehearsals, warm-up gigs and occasionally baffling television appearances, Tin Machine began what would be its last tour in October 1991. It was a gradual trek westward, starting in Europe (Bowie took time off to propose to Iman in Paris), then going on to Britain in early November. At the last UK show, at the Brixton Academy, Bowie was struck in the eye by a pack of cigarettes that someone had hurled on stage, a preview of the even ghastlier eye injury he’d receive a decade later.

The Machine was in America by mid-November. As with the European shows, the band generally played clubs, including two of Connecticut’s finest: Toad’s Place and the Sting.* It was both a reaction to the arenas of the Sound + Vision tour and a blunt acceptance that Tin Machine generally couldn’t fill a 10,000-person hall. “There’s a fair amount of improvisation in terms of how we approach some songs. And that wouldn’t hold well in a large place—particularly at this stage,” Bowie said at the time. “First of all, the people don’t know the material at all. I don’t know how many people would be interested in coming to see a Tin Machine show in an arena. I’d imagine a lot might come along hoping I’d be doing old songs or something. We don’t want that feeling at all.”

On 20 December 1991, the band was in Seattle, playing the Paramount Theatre, for its final US gig. By then, “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had conquered MTV (and would peak at #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 the following month), Seattle was the center of a gold rush of record labels and promoters, and the Machine was irrelevant, yesterday’s insurrectionists, playing to a less-than-full house.

By then there were other tensions and fractures. The tour was getting middling to scathing reviews (Greg Kot, on the Chicago show: “there was nothing noble about a group of graying rock ‘n’ rollers collectively working through a midlife crisis on stage and then having people pay to watch it.”) And Bowie, who still didn’t have a solo record contract, was essentially funding the tour himself. “A small room packed with people is a cool thing, but it’s not economical,” he recalled to Kot in 2002. “I was paying for that band to work, and I was gradually going through all my bread, and it became time to stop. I had to build my audience back up again.

And allegedly Hunt Sales was at low ebb, regularly using drugs (see “Sorry”), which soured the group’s camaraderie and made Bowie in particular agitated. “That really destroyed the band, more than anything else,” he later recalled. It got to a situation where it was just intolerable. You didn’t know if the guy was going to be dead in the morning…We just couldn’t cope.”**

The Machine played a final leg, a short trip to Japan in January and early February 1992. The last song that they played at the Budokan, on 17 February 1992, was the first song that they’d recorded, “Heaven’s in Here,” which Bowie now infused with bits of Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home a Heartache” and Perry Como’s “Dream On, Little Dreamer.” There had been vague talk about cutting a third Tin Machine album, about going on another tour in a year or so, but Tokyo was the end, and they knew it.

So there’s a poignancy in Tony Sales’ version of “Go Now,” which he played throughout the tour. Tony Sales tends to be forgotten amidst the discussions of Hunt’s antics, Gabrels’ guitar playing and the various doings of their charismatic lead singer, but he was a fine bassist and R&B singer for whom Tin Machine was the payoff of a professional life of near-misses. It’s easy to imagine that he took the band’s demise the hardest.

“Go Now” was a hit for the Moody Blues in 1965, though it was also notable, in retrospect, for being another sign that American R&B was being supplanted by British copies (while it had been a minor R&B hit for Bessie Banks the year before, the Moodys’ version all but erased the original from common memory). A waltz built on a set of descending piano thirds, “Go Now” was built so sturdily that it could withstand a good deal of emoting, though it worked best when sung simply and moodily, as by Banks or Denny Laine. So it’s a shame the Machine yet again couldn’t resist overkill, as their performances of “Go Now” were often garish overextended affairs, the song flogged to the point of being unrecognizable. The song’s title proved too apt a target, with people in the audience occasionally yelling “yeah, go now!” back at Sales. It was a fittingly heartfelt, frustrating and chaotic close to Tin Machine, and here we’ll let the band lie in peace.

“Go Now” was performed throughout the “It’s My Life” tour.

An endnote on Oy Vey, Baby: This live album, issued in July 1992, is arguably the most unloved release in the entire Bowie catalog, having failed to chart in the US or the UK upon release. It’s currently out of print. Composed of tracks taken from the Chicago, Boston, New York, Tokyo and Sapporo gigs, it’s actually a decent live document of a band that, even as they were slowly disintegrating, was still putting on tight shows. “Amazing,” from Chicago, is better than the studio version; the Tokyo “Goodbye Mr. Ed” has Bowie in fine voice and Gabrels on form. The asinine title, a Hunt Sales jibe at the latest U2 album, didn’t help the record, nor did the inclusion of a 12-minute “Heaven’s in Here” and an eight-minute “Stateside.” The mix was mainly the work of Reeves Gabrels, who described it as “deconstructionist R&B,” and who later said it was his favorite Tin Machine album. The video release (also out of print) is a wholly different beast, being entirely taken from the 24 October 1991 show in Hamburg.

* As I was a teenager in Connecticut in the late Eighties, I’d regularly gone to these clubs. As fate would have it, I was living in Boston by the time the Machine came to them.

** This quote, the most open that Bowie ever got about the Sales situation, is found in both Nicholas Pegg’s book as well as Dave Thompson’s Hallo Spaceboy. In both cases, the interview it’s taken from is not cited and I could find no original print source for it. I’m assuming it’s from a TV/radio interview, most likely the BBC’s “Golden Years” radio doc from 2000.

Photos: video stills from one of the last Tin Machine shows, Tokyo, 5-6 February 1992.


Debaser

September 6, 2012

Debaser (the Pixies).
Debaser (Tin Machine, live, 1991).

That’s the whole formula of the Pixies, that one song,” Joey Santiago once said of “Debaser.” “All the sound qualities are there. That’s what it represents.”

Bowie had loved and name-dropped the Pixies ever since he’d first heard Surfer Rosa in 1988. (It’s never been clear whether Reeves Gabrels had turned Bowie onto them or if Bowie had found them on his own.) He was taken by the band’s dynamics, Santiago’s guitar playing, Black Francis’ lyrics, their mingle of trash TV and surrealism, and Francis’ stage presence itself (“his mass of screaming flesh”).

And his favorite Pixies song was “Debaser,” the lead-off track of Doolittle. Bowie saw it as a quintessentially American song, dealing with religion and debasement and, most of all, ambition, with a crackpot joy running through it. It’s a disciple’s song, a boy somehow stumbling across Un Chien Andalou* on television and getting worked up, entranced by the idea of being a professional irritant, a worm in society (the original lyric was “Ma, I wanna be..“) As Francis screams “De-BASE-ER,” Kim Deal quietly repeats the word after him, as though she’s trying to coach a demented child, while Santiago’s riff cycles around him.

So Tin Machine covering “Debaser,” which they played in nearly every show of their 1991-92 tour, was both tribute and evangelism (Bowie considered the Pixies shamefully underexposed in America). Bowie gave it to Tony Sales, but as the tour went on, he turned it into a duet, Bowie becoming a hype man for the song, jabbing and weaving into Tony, his phrasings ranging from the manic to the robotic (in a Tokyo performance, Bowie blankly intoned the “ha ha ha ho” lines). While Tony didn’t come anywhere close to Francis’ yawp (and his “Andalucia,” which Francis had sung in exaggerated Castilian, sounds like “Andalooser”), he was game enough and seemed to get caught up in the song each night that he sang it. The band, especially Hunt Sales’ bludgeoning 4/4, discarded the clockwork precision of the Pixies’ original–how the song quickly crests from Deal’s bassline to Santiago’s riff to David Lovering’s fills—in favor of just thrashing away at the song as though they meant to beat it into submission.

Performed throughout the “It’s My Life” tour, with the above recording from one of their last US concerts, the Warfield in San Francisco, 17 December 1991.

* Or Purple Rain. The original chorus lyric was “shed, Apollonia!,” a reference to Apollonia’s nude scene in that film.

Top: Kevin Westenberg, “The Pixies,” outtake from the Bossanova photo shoot, 1990; included in the Trompe Le Monde tour program, 1991 (scan via this site).


One Shot

September 4, 2012

One Shot (earlier version).
One Shot (single edit).
One Shot (live, 1991).

In December 1990, Bowie and EMI divorced, with mutual recriminations. Bowie groused about what he considered poor promotion of Never Let Me Down and Tin Machine, while EMI pointedly noted that the best-charting Bowie album of the past half-decade had been a Rykodisc reissue (ChangesBowie had hit #1 in the UK the past March). Bowie’s world tour in 1990 did little to promote any EMI record. Now Bowie was offering them another Tin Machine album, and one with such enticements as “Stateside” and “A Big Hurt.” EMI passed; Bowie split.

Though he’d loved to complain about his labels, Bowie had been built, in part, by RCA and EMI, by their worldwide sales channels, their sacks of promotional dollars. The labels had been irritated about putting out a Low or a Tin Machine, but they still bought trade ads and in-store promo material for them, they still made the records available for someone in Kankakee to buy, they still had pushed them on the radio, if indifferently. If clueless and occasionally corrupt, the dinosaur labels that had released the bulk of Bowie’s oeuvre had provided a level of patronage that’s inconceivable for a musician of Bowie’s bent today. Even Bowie would never have its like again—he spent the Nineties as a free agent, jumping from label to label, sometimes going it alone, always on the hustle, and so offering a preview of the lot of the average pro musician in 2012.

So in 1991, for the first time in nearly 25 years, Bowie didn’t have a record deal, and all he had to sell was a waning commercial reputation and some promo mixes of Tin Machine II. His back catalog, having been freshly licensed off, couldn’t be used as bait. So amidst filming The Linguini Incident and an episode of Dream On (the latter had one of Bowie’s best camp performances), Bowie wearily flogged TMII to a number of labels.

Around March 1991, he found a taker. Victory Music was the first-ever US-based label launched by a Japanese company, the electronics giant JVC. With former Atlantic Records exec Phil Carson hired to run it, Victory pursued a cut-rate strategy of picking up “classic rock” icons past their prime. Hence its first signings: Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Tin Machine. (Victory would soon sign Yes and Paul Rodgers, then mercifully expired around 1994).

As Tin Machine II would be Victory’s first big release, the label wanted the Machine back in the studio to shine up the record and to cut another prospective single. Unfortunately, these sessions were run by the albatross of Bowie producers, Hugh Padgham. Padgham had a career of making smashes for other pop stars but for Bowie, for whatever karmic reasons, he produced Tonight and “One Shot.”

If “Goodbye Mr. Ed” was Tin Machine in their best light, “One Shot” was hard evidence of why they needed to die. It’s an airless box of a record. To be fair, the band is merely dull here, with Padgham’s production doing them no favors. Bowie was the main villain of the piece, offering a garish, grating vocal in the service of a thuggish, cliche-strewn lyric (“ten dollars tore us apart…one shot put her away“: there’s livelier writing on James Patterson book jacket copy).

Ian MacDonald once said that a tell of when Lennon and McCartney were slumming as lyricists was when they sang about buying their girlfriends jewels, and there’s something analogous in Bowie’s writing in this period—when inspiration falters, some girl gets smacked around. Call it Bowie working out some mid-life frustrations, channeling a stillborn character that he could never realize, or attempting another spavined roundabout critique of domestic violence. The cumulative effect of these songs was a general sourness, a coarseness; they had the stink of a cheap fantasy, third-hand caricature.

The lyric, a meager thing dragged out across two verses and three bridges (Bowie repeats all of his stanzas to pad out the song), contrasts a hard-knock couple locked in some firetrap of their own devising with a softer dreamworld—their recollected former life or how society sees them from the outside (the bridges: “look out on a green world/windows and wives“). But Bowie’s writing is so vague here, using the emptiest of lines to hit emotional peaks, that when the guy eventually shoots his wife (or as Bowie sings it, “put her ah-way-uh-hey-hey!“) the song offers nothing. No remorse, no anger, no disgust, not even would-be badassery. It’s a paper doll killing another paper doll, but here the dollmaker thinks it has pathos.

Rock & roll lyrics often use minimal language to sound emotional truths, with the cliche, when deployed well, serving as a narrative twist or a grace note, an undermined joke. Bowie’s lyric here can’t even rise to the level of a film noir cliche, as is the apparent intent. He rhymes “meanest” with “pieces”; the dead wife was a “spitfire” who gave him “hot love” (was poor Marc Bolan exhumed for this thing?) Bowie’s vocal (double-tracked an octave apart) generally worsens his lines—he gives an empty-shell bravado to the title line, while there’s a constipated straining to hit the high notes in the third verse. On stage, Bowie acted as though “One Shot” was a cover whose lyric he was recalling while he was singing it, much to his frustration.

The band first cut “One Shot” during the 1989 Sydney sessions for TM II, then revised the track with Padgham in Los Angeles. The earlier versions of the track have close to the final lyric, but are taken at a slower tempo and set in a different key, with Gabrels trying out various guitar tones and solos. To be fair to Padgham and the Machine, the final version and mix at least are passable, with some structural variations added—the vocal-and-drums-only third verse; the change of lyric for the third bridge repeat.

There are a few things in its favor. Gabrels’ guitar solo, which Tony Sales described as “smooth, sax-like,” has a nice melodic arc to it. (That said, Gabrels erases any accrued goodwill with 56 bars worth of skronk soloing in the outro, which was trimmed by a minute in the single edit.) The vocal harmonies in the intro and chorus show how much an undeveloped aspect of the Machine that was—Bowie never deployed the Sales brothers well as singers, whether as straight support or as the goon chorus of Iggy Pop’s “Success.” And the minor-key bridges, with Bowie’s softly ascending phrases and Gabrels’ guitar ostinato, serve as respites to the hectoring verses.

Still, after all of the bluster about Tin Machine, about how radical they were, how hard they pushed an audience, how uncontrollable a force they were, how they were a knives-out democracy who bloodied Bowie but got him out of the Eighties, here Bowie is in March 1991, back with Hugh Padgham, grinding out tepid, sour corporate rock. Which lacked even the comfort of sales, as TMII flopped. It’s as though Bowie had fallen into a wormhole and found himself in 1986, grubbing again for radio play, trying to seem “relevant” by being vulgar, making an Eddie Money gangster record. (There’s a dated pop sound to the final mix (it slightly jars with the rest of TM II) with Hunt Sales’ snare suddenly sounding like Phil Collins’.)

Consider the world that “One Shot” was sent into: Nevermind about to be released, Slanted & Enchanted and Loveless and Select Ambient Works and The Chronic about to write the grammar of the new decade, the pop charts alive with clatter and sparks. Some of Bowie’s contemporaries were woken up. Neil Young was doing feedback concertos to rival Sonic Youth; Bob Dylan was holed up in his garage taping old murder ballads; even the Stones put out a half-decent Gulf War protest single. Where was Bowie? Making tatty proof that he’d lost the plot. One of Bowie’s most aesthetically bankrupt records, “One Shot” was the dead-end that he’d banged on about in his lyric.

Recorded March 1991, A&M Studios, Los Angeles (the earlier versions likely came from the Sydney sessions in late 1989 and possibly from various 1990 sessions). Released as TM II‘s third single in Germany, Japan and Australia (there was only a promo single released in the US).

Top: the managing general partner of the Texas Rangers contemplates an unimaginable future, C-SPAN interview, 11 June 1991.


Goodbye Mr. Ed

August 28, 2012

Goodbye Mr. Ed.
Goodbye Mr. Ed (live, Oy Vey Baby, 1992).

This boy had everything. He had the looks, the moves, the manager, and the talent. And he didn’t look like Mr. Ed like a lot of the rest of us did.

Carl Perkins, on Elvis Presley.

Here those which Fortune hath frowned upon in England, to deny them an inheritance amongst their Brethren, or such as by their utmost labors can scarcely procure a living, I say such may procure here inheritances of lands and possessions…That I must needs say, that if there be any terrestrial Canaan, ‘tis surely here, where the Land floweth with milk and honey. The inhabitants are blessed with Peace and plenty, blessed in their Country.

Daniel Denton, A Brief Relation of New-York, 1670.

Goodbye to what, really? Not America, where he would come to live, or American music, particularly black American music, which he would emulate (passive-aggressively) on his next record. Not his youth: that was already gone. Not spectacle, not celebrity: he’d already tried to enroll himself into witness protection with Tin Machine. It wasn’t even meant to be goodbye to the Machine, with whom, but for the 1991 tour, he may have been cajoled into making more records. (As it turned out, “Goodbye Mr. Ed,” sequenced to close Tin Machine II, proved the band’s tombstone after all.)

But the song was a farewell of some sort. If not to America itself, then it was the snuffing out of some last spark of the imagined America of David Jones, suburban misfit and aspirant. America became like a dreamland to me, Bowie had said in 1974, while nodding off in a documentary about himself. His relationship to America—the fable-America of his youth; the Nixonian snipers-on-the-roofs madhouse that he snaked through as Ziggy Stardust; the bloated, sated country that he had finally conquered through television in 1983—always had been a sort of estranged fascination. Now he dug at the roots of it, envisioning the start of America which, for Bowie, meant the start of New York: Dutchmen and Indians, 1626.

Bowie recalled an episode of Tony Brown’s Journal about the former inhabitants of Manhattan island who, according to American legend, were the biggest suckers in U.S. real estate history. American history is, in great part, a history of con men and their marks. The Lenape were king marks, royal dupes: the people who had sold Manhattan to the Dutch for sixty guilders worth of baubles. Bowie saw the ghosts of “the Manhattoes” standing on the roof of Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building, the latest capitalist tower-shrine erected upon what had once been a farm or burial ground. The Manhattoes taking the view, then hurling themselves off the tower, screaming. The name was wrong—the Native Americans who had lived on Manhattan island were the Lenape. “Manhattoes,” Bowie’s word, had been coined by white colonists, taken up centuries later by Washington Irving and Herman Melville. So the Lenape are suicidal ghosts denied their own name. Their defiance, jumping off a landmark skyscraper, eerily predicted a NYC catastrophe a decade later, the death to come.

With that as a founding image, Bowie wrote the rest of “Goodbye Mr. Ed” by “juxtaposing lines which really shouldn’t fit, free-association around the idea of ‘bye-bye ’50s America,'” he said in 1991. The reoccurring figure is “someone”—the indifferent angel of “Look Back in Anger,” the blank eye of the television tube, a bored God—seeing it all, watching the wrack of a civilization piling up. The lyric is a stroll through a ruminative mind: Andy Warhol’s skull, housed in a shrine in a Queens shopping mall; Brueghel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (possibly reached via WC Williams’ poem); a soured nursery rhyme. It ends with the Sex Pistols and their inheritors, the former seeding demon eggs, the latter left to hatch them. A gnomic end to a gnomic lyric—the Pistols as the end-stage cancer of rock music, the acrid revenge of Britain on the music of its lost colonies.

Bowie’s vocal is a studied exhaustion, keeping to a narrow range, with his strongest vocal melody nicked from Acker Bilk’s “Stranger on the Shore” (cf. the descending “shrieking as they fall”; h/t Nicholas Pegg). The song’s structure is a set of irregular verses, three brief solos and a repeated bridge. In the verses, Bowie’s lines are a loose iambic trimeter, each phrase generally five or six syllables with a strong-beat/weak-beat rhythm (“AN-dy’s SKULL en-SHRINED”), while Bowie sings the title line flatly, giving the same cold intonation to each of the five syllables, letting the stop (“ed”) quickly expire.

The vocal mutes the accumulation of bizarre images in the lyric, Bowie’s delivery suggesting that nothing in the ruined landscape of his imagined America holds any ability to surprise anymore. The miraculous and the uncanny have become bric-a-brac. My brain hurt like a warehouse, he’d once sung, when he was nothing but voice, color and ambition. Now he was absently sorting through it, wondering why he’d bothered to fill it up in the first place.

“Goodbye Mr. Ed”* began as what Tony Sales recalled as a “tuning-up thing” from the Sydney sessions, an instrumental studio jam to loosen everyone up (so it may have been similar to something like “Exodus”). The Sales brothers wrote the music with Bowie, and the final track has some of their finest performances. Tony plays parrying, unsettled basslines throughout, making a wistful ascent before the first bridge, while there’s a loneliness in his querying notes in the solo between the bridges. Hunt deftly handles the swift, erratic changes of tempo, varying the buildups to start each verse, jabbing in sharp little snare fills throughout, giving thundering kick work in the bridges.

Reeves Gabrels spent 1990 chasing Bowie, using down weeks in the “Sound + Vision” tour as opportunities to overdub the provisional Tin Machine II tracks. “‘Goodbye Mr. Ed’ was just a rhythm track until we got to Miami,” Gabrels said. “Mr. Ed” appears to have been finally completed during the last sessions for the album in March 1991 (see endnote).

But where on other TMII tracks Gabrels had dubbed dozens of new guitar lines, with vibrator vibrato and shards of feedback, his contributions to “Mr. Ed” are more spare, more precise. Take the intro, where a rapidly-picked acoustic guitar in the right channel is joined, two bars later, by an electric guitar playing a shrill version of the same riff, while another electric, first only heard as a distant echo in the left channel, quickly emerges as a rival voice. Another electric guitar dub offers a flourish, then Tony Sales’ bass and Hunt’s cymbals arrive with Bowie to propel the song to its early climax (midway into the first verse). It’s Glenn Branca’s “Lesson No. 1 for Electric Guitar” in miniature, a guitar symphony condensed to 20 seconds.

Throughout the track Gabrels offers new melodies, new agitations—a nagging ostinato, the singing phrases in the space before the first bridge. After Bowie’s final goodbye, the song sinks into itself, imploding, the players fading out and creeping back in, warring to be heard: the last thing that you hear is a repeating busy signal via feedback.

Despite its wayward creation, having been pieced together over years and continents, “Goodbye Mr. Ed” was one of the best group performances that Tin Machine ever recorded—within its brief span, they were the band they were always intended to be. It’s also one of Bowie’s most inspired vocals of the era, the musings of a dry man idly watching TV. “Mr. Ed” answers and augments the frustrated, spent figure who sang “I Can’t Read” (the corpse of Warhol exhumed again)—here it’s a man unraveling a myth that he once needed to live. Despite the chaos of its lyric and the brief surge of contempt heard in the bridge (Bowie giving sharper emphases to his lines in the repeat), “Mr. Ed” is another retreat, another surrender in a season of them, a man closing down another wing of some grand abandoned house, further reducing himself (it’s telling how many of Bowie’s best songs of the Eighties are resignation letters). One of the peaks of the Tin Machine era, and its worthy epitaph.

Recorded ca. October-November 1989, 301 Studios, Sydney; (vocals, overdubs, poss. retakes) ca. April 1990, Miami; ca. October-November 1990, London; March 1991, Los Angeles. Performed on the 1991-92 tour, with a version from Tokyo, February 1992, on Oy Vey, Baby.

* I love to imagine that Bowie got the title from this headline in the 16 October 1990 Weekly World News.

An endnote on chronology, suitable only for obsessives: As EMI had rejected releasing another Tin Machine album, by the end of 1990 Bowie no longer had a record contract. Throughout 1990, Bowie and Gabrels worked on the Sydney tapes to make them more “commercial” to EMI, and latterly to lure another label. Sessions were held during rare off weeks for “Sound + Vision.” So the Miami session that Gabrels mentioned likely coincided with the S&V stops in Florida, around 27 April- 5 May 1990. There’s another documented dub/mixing session, with Tim Palmer engineering, at Eel Pie Studios in London, in late October-November 1990 (Matt Rescinoff, from Musician, attended the Eel Pie session and then visited the Machine again in LA on 18 June 1991 (which he said was “eight months later” from the Eel Pie session). The March 1991 sessions in LA, where the master version of “Mr. Ed” was likely completed, were at the behest of Bowie’s new label, Victory—we’ll get into that more when we reach “One Shot.”

Top: Lucian Perkins, “A Survivor of the Gulf War,” 1991 (William Meyers: “yellow fires flare up across the horizon of al-Burgan oil fields south of Kuwait City. The ground to the horizon is sand dotted with small shrubs, and the sky above the horizon is blue and black with smoke from the fires. A donkey in the left foreground rears upon its hindlegs, almost vertically, as if dancing. The donkey has some bedding from an Iraqi trench in its mouth“); US Air Force, “F-16A, F-15C and F-15E flying during Desert Storm,” Kuwait, 1991.


You Belong In Rock n’ Roll

August 9, 2012

You Belong In Rock n’ Roll.
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (single mix, video).
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (Paramount City, 1991).
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (Wogan, 1991).
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (Top of the Pops, 1991).
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (Sacrée Soirée, 1991).
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (Eleva2ren, 1991).
You Belong In Rock n’ Roll (live, Oy Vey Baby, 1991).

Are there any new ideas left to be discovered in rock and roll?

Bowie: In rock and roll, no. But in what you can give rock and roll, yes. I think the whole idea of talking about the feelings that you have between your mid-30s and mid-40s…there are endless experiences there. The whole weight of having gone through the apocalyptic vision of the Seventies, the greed and vanity of the Eighties: these are things that none of the younger bands knew about or experienced. So they’re just a result of it. With a band like Guns ‘n’ Roses, lyrically there’s a kind of abandon there. But abandon from what?

Alan di Perna, “Ballad of the Tin Men,” Creem, 1991.

The lead-off single of Tin Machine II, “You Belong in Rock n’ Roll” was Bowie’s most overt attempt at pop since “Never Let Me Down,” and it tanked, charting only (and poorly) in the UK, ignored by the rest of the world. Possibly inspired by U2’s “With or Without You,” it shared with the latter a bass-driven, deep-crooned verse, a sudden dynamic shift in the chorus (triggered by the title phrase) and a simple, repeating chord progression—“Rock n’ Roll” just uses the first two chords, C and G, of “With or Without You”‘s cycling C-G-Am-F. But compared to U2’s brooding religious erotica, “Rock n’ Roll” is camp trash, with Reeves Gabrels playing his guitar solos with a vibrator.*

The title suggested some kind of reckoning with the past: after the bridge-burning of Tin Machine, it seemed to be Bowie trying to align himself for a fresh decade. An old friend once said that it was never a good sign when an aging band wrote a song with “rock and roll” in the title (he was thinking of Kiss, who had just put out “God Gave Rock and Roll to You”), as it usually was a cue for gross nostalgia or base pandering. Thankfully that’s not the case here—Bowie’s “Rock n’ Roll” is too slight, too moody, too crass, although he is chasing after ghosts in it.

The guiding spirit is Marc Bolan in his prime, comparing girls to cars and mountain kings: I love the velvet hat–you know the one that caused a revolution…you got the blues in your shoes and your stockings…I’ll call you Jaguar if I may be so bold. Bowie’s come-ons in “Rock n’ Roll” are shopworn and banal by comparison: the girl (or rock itself) reminds him of “cheap streets,” she says “cheap things,” she’s got a “bad look.” It’s third-rate seduction. Bolan had known he was the prize—the come-ons were just for show, he was just peacocking for his own delight, as he’d already closed the deal. Bowie in “Rock n’ Roll” has to really work the sale, and seems to vaguely despise himself for it.

The big hook, triggered to the song’s one chord change, is “you belong in rock n’ roll…well, so do I,” a weakly Bolanesque line. Bowie’s phrasing of the last words, a slight aspiring push upward, suggests that he knows it’s a dubious claim. But what was “rock n’ roll” here? In 1990 it meant Guns ‘n’ Roses and Warrant—it was no place for some crackpot dandy like Bolan, let alone Bowie entering his high Dorian Gray period. Bowie had never been reverent about rock music; he’d always questioned whatever transcendence it offered. In his Ziggy Stardust days, he referred to rock as an aging tart. Twenty years on, he felt the same, although now he was in a serious hard “rock n’ roll” band whose players sometimes acted as if they were the music’s last hope—it’s tempting to call “Rock n’ Roll” Bowie’s subconscious rejection of Tin Machine. In the video for “Rock n’ Roll,” Bowie preened into the mirror, wriggling out of his garish lime-green jacket while he sang “so do I”; on stage, he sometimes mimed slapping on foundation.

But the track’s not mere parody, either. As with Bolan’s influence, you can hear Bowie trying to recall an old language, trying to ground himself again in a music that had once worked for him. There’s a trace of Buddy Holly in how Bowie toys with his phrases, hollowing out vowels, stretching a small word to fill the space of three: luh-uh-huh-hove, say-uh-hay-hay. (On the Paradise City performance, Bowie sings the second verse in a quasi-American accent). So it’s fitting that it ends back at the mirror. When Bowie builds up to the climax, he finally imitates “Bowie,” the imperious, archangel-voiced Bowie of pop memory: on fire! on FIRE! on FIRE! on FIIIHAH!

Though its rhythm track—a rumbling Tony Sales bassline, flourishes of acoustic guitar, a tight Hunt Sales playing a swinging kick drum pattern—was nailed down in the Sydney sessions, “Rock n’ Roll” was one of the tracks that Gabrels wouldn’t leave alone. He cut guitar overdub after overdub while Bowie was on his world tour in 1990. By the time Tin Machine II was mixed in spring 1991, “Rock n’ Roll” had ballooned to a 56-track recording, the majority of which was taken up with Gabrels’ bleats, buzzes and whines.

Gabrels had been obsessed with Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine, and as “Rock n’ Roll” was “basically a bass song, I wanted to lay in some industrial stuff against it,” he said. Gabrels started by vibrating an electric razor against his guitar strings but found he wanted something with variable speeds, so that he could better tune it. So Gabrels and his guitar tech went out to a few Sydney sex shops and came back with a selection of vibrators. Gabrels became a fan—“You can use [a vibrator] as a sound source and also as a string driver by laying it against the bridge,” he said—as did Bowie, who said he expected to soon go into a music store and find rows of vibrators with effects pedals and slides: an inspired vision of commerce that sadly never came to be.

That said, Gabrels’ main solo, the eight-bar fill between refrain and verse, is Gabrels at his most restrained, offering just a series of steadily-rising chords, while his various vibrator-guitar dubs work as mood colors in the mix rather than overwhelming the track. The final mix of “Rock n’ Roll” sounded good—Tony Sales’ backing vocals giving tension to Bowie’s murmurings, the handclaps, the low-mixed saxophone—but in the fall of 1991, no one wanted to hear it. Perhaps it was a minor cultural exhaustion with Bowie: it was the first single after the Sound + Vision tour/retrospective. The Bowie of the past was far too strong a presence, the Bowie of the present seemed compromised and empty. “Rock n’ Roll” was a pretender, soon sent packing.

Recorded ca. September-October 1989, Studios 301, Sydney, with overdubs in 1990 and March 1991. Released as a single in August 1991 (LONCD 305, c/w “Amlapura (Indonesian version), #33 UK). There was also a limited edition single in a metal box. To produce it, according to Pegg, the label had to purchase used tins from the US Navy. The band played or lip-synched “Rock n’ Roll” on Denmark’s Eleva2ren, France’s Sacree Soiree and the UK’s Wogan, TOTP and Paramount City, generating weak sales and minor controversy because of Gabrels’ vibrators. (Weirdly, the Machine apparently didn’t play “Rock n’ Roll” in their big US TV promotion, ABC In Concert.) Played throughout the 1991-92 tour, with a version from Chicago, 7 December 1991, used as the closing track on Oy Vey Baby.

* Gabrels told Musician that his touring vibrators were “a 4″ Ladyfinger and an 8″ variable speed, with a Panasonic electric razor as backup.”

Top: Michel Piccoli and Emmanuelle Béart, La Belle Noiseuse (Rivette, 1991).