Saviour

September 25, 2014

02wire

Saviour (Kristeen Young with Bowie).

At the end of 2001, Bowie broke with his current label, Virgin (it helped that Virgin hadn’t picked up its option on a new Bowie album—they were all but daring him to leave) and formed his own record company. This was the culmination of over a decade’s worth of frustration with the music industry and in particular with Virgin, who’d rejected both a live Bowie album (liveandwell) and a studio one (Toy). “Many times I’ve not been in agreement with how things are done and as a writer of some proliferation, frustrated at how slow and lumbering it all is,” he told Billboard.

So at age 55, Bowie was finally an indie recording artist. His new label, ISO, had one client, himself: there were reports ISO had signed a band and another solo act, but nothing apparently came of this. He signed a distribution deal with Columbia for Heathen, a structure that remains at the present day (Columbia’s issuing Nothing Has Changed in a few months).

One sign of Bowie’s contractual freedom was a growing penchant for guest-starring on others’ albums: these would be his only moments on record in the late 2000s. It helped that he was able to use Tony Visconti for his field research. Visconti had already gotten Bowie on a Rustic Overtones album and now he introduced Bowie to a St. Louis songwriter and pianist named Kristeen Young.

kristeenyoung_1

A half-Apache, half-German child adopted by fundamentalist Christians, Young endured adolescence as a series of pitched battles (her mother would smash her Prince records; Young later described herself as “an imprisoned child”). She took refuge in punk and indie music, becoming pen pals with Jello Biafra (who once taught her to parallel park); in the Nineties, she formed and discarded bands, worked as a waitress and began recording solo records with a drummer, “Baby” Jeff White (the set-up was a reversed image of the White Stripes). She was an acquired taste: the CMJ, reviewing her debut in 1997, began with “What is it about playing the piano that encourages young women to become crazy, screaming banshees?

She sent Visconti a copy of her second album, Enemy, in November 1999 (she’d reportedly found his name in a music industry directory). Taken by what he described as her “part rock, part Bartok” music, her cover photo and her four-octave “gutsy voice…with its high soprano register,” Visconti agreed to produce Young’s next album. As she had no record deal, Young and Visconti worked up a collection of demos in New York in 2001-2002, around the same time Bowie was recording Heathen. She wound up singing and playing piano on a few tracks, Bowie in turn offering to sing on one of hers.

This was “Saviour,” which Young later said was in part a tribute to her friendship/mentorship with Visconti. Bowie took the second verse, savoring the line “American landfillLAAND-fill,” and kept pace with Young for the rest of it, mostly content to let Young out-sing him. It’s a piece of bizarre, affected, fairly catchy art-rock. Should Lady Gaga and Bowie get together at some point, “Saviour” could even be something of a template.

Young went on to have a contentious, sibling-like relationship with Morrissey, who sacked her from a 2007 tour for “salacious language” but soon mended fences. Earlier this year, the Morrissey camp accused Young of giving Moz a “horrendous cold” that resulted in yet another tour cancellation. If Bowie ever tours again, Young should perhaps consider switching allegiances.

Recorded: Looking Glass Studios, ca. late 2001/mid-2002: (Bowie vocal retake) February 2003. Released 13 June 2003 (November 2003 in the US) on Breasticles (N Records ZM 00103). (Reflecting the chaos/implosion of the music industry in 2003, this record was released as a CD only in Portugal, and later as a web-only release in the US/UK). The promo version of Breasticles, which Young self-distributed in 2002, featured an earlier Bowie vocal.

Top: “The king stay the king“: D’Angelo lectures Wallace and Bodie on chess strategy, “The Buys,The Wire, June 2002; Young, ca. 2002.

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Afraid

March 10, 2014

00nairobi

Afraid (BowieNet demo, 2000).
Afraid (Toy).
Afraid (Heathen).
Afraid (Late Night with Conan O’Brien, 2002).
Afraid (live, 2002).
Afraid (live, 2003).
Afraid (live, 2004).

[where were we?]

The plan at Looking Glass Studios in October 2000 had been just to cut overdubs for the Toy tracks—backing vocals, some Lisa Germano colors, “lock[ing] up a few things” (Mark Plati)—but by mid-month, Bowie and Plati were recording new tracks and mixing them as they went along, the sessions now extending through early November. Plati had cranked out two tracks a day when mixing Bowie’s BBC recordings “so I figured I’d try and have the same sort of work ethic for this project,” he wrote in his web journal.* And Bowie kept writing new songs.

Reading Andrew Loog Oldham’s memoir Stoned at the time (Oldham had managed the Rolling Stones in the Sixties—he’d done a quick assessment of David Jones and had passed), Bowie was tickled by an anecdote in which Oldham had locked Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in a flat until they came up with a song. Oldham knew the band was going nowhere unless they started writing their own material. With the Stones’ ostensible leader, Brian Jones, incapable of delivering the goods, the task fell on the singer and the rhythm guitarist. Oldham returned to be greeted with either “It Should Be You” (Jagger’s recollection) or “As Tears Go By” (Richards’) (my vote’s “It Should Be You,” which sounds written by someone trapped in a kitchen for an hour).

As a joke, Plati said Bowie should follow the Oldham approach. Hey, it got results. “So I sent him off to the Looking Glass lounge and told him not to come back until he had the goods!” Plati wrote. This being Bowie, he actually did come back with a fresh song, which he called “Afraid,” debuting it to Plati on the latter’s mini Stratocaster.

“Afraid” had some affinities to the Toy “new songs in the vein of my old songs” conceit, with Bowie hinting at “Heroes” (“I…wish I was smarter“), “Conversation Piece” (“if I put my faith in medication” has a touch of “I’ve spent a lot of time in education“) and “I Can’t Read” (esp. its mid-Nineties revision, whose revised lyric Bowie all but quotes in the last chorus). A few other ghosts kicked around in it: “You’ll Never Walk Alone” sings through the last refrain. And Bowie went back, yet again, to John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band. In that album’s “God,” after dispatching a run of false idols (Jesus, Buddha, Bob “Zimmerman”), Lennon ended his purge with the Beatles. Grow up, the dream’s over, make a new life for yourself. I have. I just believe in me, Yoko and me, and that’s reality.

“I believe in Beatles,” Bowie sings in “Afraid.” He doesn’t want reality. He also believes in aliens and/or in God (“we’re not alone”), in reincarnation and/or spiritual betterment (“I believe my little soul has grown”**). There’s another old Bowie song shifting deep beneath all of this: “Cygnet Committee.” “Cygnet Committee” is an ambitious young man trying to will himself into an artist, escaping from being a dilettante into the sort of man who could write “‘Heroes'” and “Station to Station.” It’s a long flagellation, building to a near-screamed final set of refrains: “And I want to believe!/in the madness that calls ‘Now’/and I want to believe!/that a light’s shining through/somehow.” It’s a man opening himself up to life, exposing himself to the blows of experience.

“Afraid” is the other end of the telescope. It’s a numbed (maybe via Prozac or lithium) perspective, a man recalling the heights and depths of a past life (“I used to walk on clouds”) but now desperately trying to be “normal,” to live a flattened life, to conform in any way imaginable so he can sleep at night. Even his hopes—in God, aliens, “classic” pop music—are compromised. They’re beliefs he hopes are shared, or are at least common enough (in the language of social media, they’re “trending”). He’s outsourced even his aspirations to society.

In an interview in 2002, Bowie took pains to distance himself from the character: “I don’t see it as being representative of me.” He described the narrator as someone who does what society expects him to, striking a bargain of spiritual conformity for a sense of security. “An interesting deceit, but not mine,” Bowie clucked.

This was similar to how he’d prefaced ‘Hours’: that he was using the perspectives of other men his age who’d been less favored by life. And you could argue the desperate soul of “Afraid” is a photo negative of the man who sang the song, who was established, famous, rich, happily married and a new father. But in the context of Toy, “Afraid” took on different colors. There the track was surrounded by those in which an older man revisited his first songs, the songs he’d written before he became ‘David Bowie.’ As weak or as scattered as these songs were, what united them was a sense of movement. They were building blocks which the singer of “Cygnet Committee” had needed before he could try to scrabble up higher. “Afraid” suggested the man had fallen back down, that the dreams had proved too much for him, that he was settling for shopworn ones. It gave a new, bitter flavor to a sadness that permeated the album.

ben_stiller_david_bowie_owen_wilson_zoolander_001

Plati and Bowie honed “Afraid” through late October, debuting the song on a livestream on BowieNet (on 2 November). By this performance (just Bowie on acoustic, Plati on electric guitar) “Afraid” had crystallized: its subsequent revisions, for both Toy and Heathen, would mainly serve to add or sift a few layers. Even in its “demo” stage, Bowie had the downshifting intro guitar riff and the G minor verse progression. Nearly all of his lines were in place as well as essentially the whole song structure.

The version cut for Toy ornamented and weighed down the song: while Sterling Campbell’s drums were lively, the wall of harmony vocals pasted in the choruses clotted up the melody, suggesting some extended community of the deluded. Then “Afraid” was packed off to EMI as part of the Toy tapes, and (as we’ll see next entry) wound up stranded in the void.

By the time of the sessions for his next album in 2001, where he was working with Tony Visconti, Bowie had abandoned hope that Toy would be released and set about pulling a few things from the wreckage, including “Afraid.” Unlike another Toy original Bowie retrieved (again, see next entry), he kept some of the basic tracks of “Afraid,” with Visconti adding a new bassline and a string arrangement. “I had always liked the version of ‘Afraid’ that I did with Mark Plati, so Tony and I got him to do a little more work on his guitar parts so that it would be more in line with the rest of the album, Tony again playing bass,” Bowie said in an interview. “Then Tony mixed it. I think it could be a great live song. Of course, it’s kind of sardonic in its assertion that if we play the game everything will be alright.”

Visconti’s “Afraid” was a paring back, a realignment, and his changes worked to sharpen the song’s unsettled mood. He gave space and perspective. Take the first verse: where on Toy it had been carried by acoustic guitar, now the dramatic weight mainly falls on a right-mixed electric guitar, while the left-mixed acoustic is confined to making jarring interjections, jabbing off-beat as if trying to wake the singer up. Then the acoustic’s shuffled to the center and quickly submerged in the mix (a conscience smothered) while a new voice takes its place in the left channel, a low, arpeggiating guitar figure. Visconti’s strings emboss the delusion of the refrains, where Bowie’s quavering lead vocal is at first left starkly exposed.

Now sequenced in the middle of Heathen, “Afraid” was strengthened by its new surroundings. Other Heathen tracks were brothers to it, whether thematically, harmonically or melodically. It was home at last, it was among adults. Did it lose anything from being stripped from its original context? Or was it good for Toy to die so that “Afraid” could live?

[to be concluded]

Recorded October-November 2000, Looking Glass Studios, NYC; (overdubs) ca. July-September 2001, Allaire Studios, New York. Released 11 June 2002 on Heathen. Performed 2002-2004, up until the last shows of the aborted summer ’04 tour.

* For gear heads only: Plati rented two Universal Audio Teletronix LA2A compressors: “[they] still had the warmth one would associate with a classic LA2A but with a much clearer and open top end…I went back and remixed previous tracks with them.” He also had the Apogee PSX-100 analog-digital converter, which he used in conjunction with a Tascam DA-88 to make 24-bit mixes. For guitars, Plati favored a Fender Stratocaster “done over with Sperzel tuners, a graphite nut and saddles…up a gauge to .11s.”

** Possibly a wink at Emperor Hadrian’s alleged tribute to his departing soul: animula, vagula, blandula

Future days dept.:

The next two months will be quieter than usual for the blog, as I’ll be consumed with a few things, including speaking at the Experience Music Project’s Pop Conference in Seattle (see here) in late April. So don’t be surprised if two weeks and change go by without a fresh entry. We should return to a brisker pace once all of this is over, sometime in May.

Top: Domitilla Asquer, “Farncesca Waiting for Gasoline,” Riruta (Nairobi), Kenya, March 2000; Bowie briefing Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson on the rules of battle, Zoolander.


The Rustic Overtones Songs

February 11, 2014

00london1

Sector Z.
Man Without a Mouth.

The overriding feature of the ’90s was working with bands that few people had heard of,” Tony Visconti recalled in his autobiography. In 1989, he sold his Good Earth Studios (where Bowie had cut some of Diamond Dogs and Scary Monsters) to “a jingle company” and, after two decades in London, Visconti moved home to New York. “It was the end of my era. Young dance producers were making entire records on Akai 900 samplers and record companies loved this trend, if only for financial reasons. Rock was dead; or rather, record companies were attempting to murder it.”

A bit ironically, as he was now based in New York,* Visconti now worked with a heap of British and European artists: Phillip Boa, Annie Haslam, Louis Bertignac, Marc Lavoine, John Squire’s Seahorses. He also produced records for a few American indie bands swept up by the majors: the Dwellers, D Generation (during whose sessions Bowie called to break the ice with Visconti, after 14 years of silence) and Portland, Maine’s Rustic Overtones.

ro

The Rustic Overtones were signed to Arista Records by Clive Davis in 1998. They’d come up DIY in the early Nineties—playing hundreds of shows across the Northeast, producing and promoting their CDs to an at-times obtuse local media and helping to grow a music scene in Portland, Maine, a town not especially known for its sound (no dig at Portland, a fine place).

Davis saw the band, with their three-man saxophone and trombone section and their funk/ska leanings, as being Arista’s response to RCA’s Dave Matthews Band, Atlantic’s Sugar Ray and Interscope’s Smash Mouth. The band had other ideas. At their “coming out” performance at an Arista party in 1999, attended by the likes of P. Diddy, the band ignored Davis’ song requests and instead played the most feedback- and distortion-heavy songs in their repertoire.

Upon signing with Arista, the band was given a list of possible producers and quickly settled on Visconti. Recording in the spring of 1999 at Avatar Studios (the former Power Station) in midtown New York, the band felt like “the Beverly Hillbillies,” lead singer Dave Gutter told me. Their one indulgence was to have a ping-pong table brought in the studio. As the sessions went on, Visconti kept saying Bowie would love their sound. (The intro of their “Hardest Way Possible” had called back to “Young Americans.”) This became a running joke, with the band pranking Visconti about Bowie showing up to jam. Gutter would announce himself as Bowie at the door buzzer and once carried on a five-minute phone conversation with Visconti as Bowie, with “a really bad British accent.”

The band didn’t know that Visconti and Bowie had renewed their friendship and were now regularly e-mailing, and that Visconti actually had invited Bowie to the sessions. So one day when the Overtones were messing around in the studio, each player on a “wrong” instrument (Gutter, who played guitar, was thumping on a bass), Bowie walked in. “We freaked out,” Gutter said. The rules changed. For one thing, Bowie smoked everywhere, despite the “no smoking” signs at Avatar. The band had been on good behavior but now they were almost running after Bowie, frantically lighting up in his nicotine wake. (Gutter mailed a few of Bowie’s cigarette butts home to his mother.)

Rustic_Overtones_-_¡Viva_Nueva!

With Bowie up for singing on a track, the Overtones developed a piece called “Sector Z” for him. The song naturally involved extraterrestrials. “In the smoky clubs you won’t need oxygen/and you won’t need laser guns,” Gutter offers in the verse, with Bowie commandeering the refrains as an alien broadcaster. Bowie came up with the refrain’s call-and-response structure, alternating his spoken asides with some gorgeously-sung phrases “in his Ziggy voice,” as Visconti later recalled, and swathed them in a set of harmony tracks. (So the Bowie voice you hear in “Sector Z” could be similar to the scrapped “Safe In This Sky Life,” another alleged Ziggy-style vocal cut the prior year.)

“Sector Z” sounded like Bowie was having a blast: there’s a fizzy exuberance in the track that’s a world away from ‘Hours,‘ the album he was finishing at the time. Bowie would turn up five or six times during the sessions and the band was taken by his irreverence and honed self-deprecation. “Oh, that was shit,” Bowie would say upon hearing one of his (usually perfect) vocals played back. Gutter was on Bowie’s email list for a time; Bowie would bombard him with links to the most bizarre video clips imaginable.

Bowie’s work with the Rustic Overtones is a testament to his “professional fan” side: he didn’t charge the band for his time and he would hype them on BowieNet as one of his favorite groups. And when the Overtones went to Looking Glass Studios in July 1999 for Bowie’s vocal overdubs, Bowie mentioned that there was another song on the roughs that he thought he could do something with, and would they mind?

Unlike “Sector Z,” “Man Without a Mouth” wasn’t intended for him, so Bowie had to worm his way into the song, tracking a series of wordless harmony vocals. He worked with his usual economy: he sang his main vocal in one go, then triple-tracked his lines, finishing all of it in about 20 minutes.

Variations on what happened to the Rustic Overtones played out for dozens of other bands caught up in the post-Napster implosion of the music industry. (“It was when the wall fell down,” Gutter recalls). Their album, provisionally titled This Is Rock ‘n’ Roll, was set for an early 2000 release until the ouster of Davis and his allies left the band without an advocate. The album soon got yanked from Arista’s release schedule, and after a year in limbo, the band was able to escape Arista with their masters. They cut some new tracks, though nine of the Visconti tracks (and naturally, the two Bowie songs) would remain on Viva Nueva, the album finally issued by Tommy Boy in the summer of 2001. The strain had taken its toll on the band, though: they broke up a year later.

They’ve been reunited since 2007 (“once the coast was clear,” Gutter said) and are happy to be indie again. Visconti is the last outside producer the band used, as they took their time with him as a tutorial (“we learned so much from him—all of these tricks he had”). Gutter said that when starting out as a band in the early Nineties, the game was to hustle to get a major-label deal, that self-producing CDs was taken as a sign that you couldn’t cut it. Now seemingly everyone (including Bowie himself) is a self-publisher of sorts.

So hats off to a Maine rock band who can be listed in the same sentence as Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Placebo, Lulu, Scarlett Johansson and Arcade Fire. Gutter’s only regret from his time with Bowie concerns the ping-pong table at Avatar. The band had wanted to invite Bowie for a match during the sessions but thought better of it: this was a serious rock artiste, after all. Later, they read that Bowie was actually an avid ping-pong player and once had an epic match with Lou Reed. “We totally should have asked Bowie to play!” he says.

Recorded ca. May 1999, Avatar Studios; July 1999 (Bowie vocal) Looking Glass Studios, New York. First released on Viva Nueva, 5 June 2001.

I’m very grateful for Dave Gutter for his time and stories. Please visit the Rustic Overtones’ site for more information about them. Dave has a request: if anyone recalls (& finds) the BowieNet journal entry, ca. 2000, where DB talks up the Rustic Overtones, please send along a link (I haven’t found it yet).

* A pointless personal anecdote: Visconti and I were neighbors in the Nineties. According to his autobio, he lived and worked in an apartment at 90th St. and 3rd Ave.; I lived at 83rd St. and 1st for most of the decade. I likely saw him on the street a few times without knowing it. Did I ever see DB & not realize it? There’s a question.

Top: Holger Engelhard, “London, 2000”; Visconti and the Rustic Overtones clowning at Avatar Studios, 1999 (Billboard); Viva Nueva.


Safe

October 2, 2013

ultimos amarres

Safe (remake of “Safe in this Sky Life”).

It is not the literal past that rules us, save, possibly, in a biological sense. It is images of the past. These are often as highly structured and selective as myths. Images and symbolic constructs of the past are imprinted, almost in the manner of genetic information, on our sensibility. Each new historical era mirrors itself in the picture and active mythology of its past or of a past borrowed from other cultures…

George Steiner, In Bluebeard’s Castle, 1971.1

The past, it almost shimmers down

“Safe.”

What happened in 1998?

The president of the United States was impeached for perjuring himself about a shabby affair. Around the world: wars, calamities, children, television, the usual things. Never mind that. What happened to Bowie? It was the year he finally was consumed by the past.

He entered 1998 still talking up jungle, still acting out Earthling, but he left it readying his next face. This would be the “street clothes” Bowie of the turn of the millennium: flannel shirts, his hair a rat-brown fringe, granny glasses. And as a variant, a wan majordomo figure first seen on the cover of Hours. In either case, this new Bowie came off as something like a decommissioned rock star; an aging hipster caretaker of his past lives.

Sure, he’d changed his look before; he’d soon change it again. But any subsequent changes would be minor cosmetic variations on this image. The “new” Bowie of 1999 would be his last edition. He stopped here. As the cliche has it, he finally fell to earth.

He’d always had a curatorial side, surprising fans with the carefully-deployed antique, weaving a fresh song over the bones of an old one. But there was also his obverse: the man devoted to the present, seemingly bent on claiming a stake in the future: an artist happy to be a tuning fork for more discordant sounds, the ambassador of the weird to the straight world.

Now the future side of him went into remission. Rather than make another evasive maneuver like Tin Machine, he went inward, back into his old music. Not all at once (his next album would shuttle between a world-weary tone and the last squawks of his mapgie self); he edged into rock classicism as one does a hot bath. But his music became, more and more, extensions to and rewrites of his old work, rather than attempts to claim new territories. It began, as these things do, with the cartoon Rugrats.

golmin

Karyn Rachtman, an executive producer and musical director of the first Rugrats film, asked Bowie to contribute a song. Rachtman (sister of Ricky, late of Headbanger’s Ball) wanted to make the soundtrack hip. This was the coming thing: children’s entertainment had to appeal to parents, to assure them they hadn’t lost their souls by reproducing. So she got Iggy Pop, Beck, Patti Smith, No Doubt and Elvis Costello (the last two in a duet). From Bowie, she wanted a proper “David Bowie song.” Ziggy Stardust guitars, sweeping strings, the Thin White Duke croon. (“A little bit of ‘Space Oddity,’ ‘”Heroes”‘ and ‘Absolute Beginners’ rolled into one,” its producer said). An amalgam of the popular imagination’s Bowie. And Bowie gave her what she wanted.

As the song, “Safe In This Sky Life,” was never released or bootlegged, all we have to go by are descriptions of its making, which was elaborate. The track featured a 24-piece string section, Reeves Gabrels on guitar (he’d co-written the song), harmony vocals by Richard Barone (the Bongos), drums by Clem Burke (Blondie) and keyboards by Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater). To produce it, Bowie had dialed up his past.

Tony Visconti hadn’t worked with, or even talked to, Bowie in 15 years. There were reportedly sore feelings on both sides, Visconti for being elbowed out of Let’s Dance and for his contributions to the “Berlin” records erased in the press; Bowie for Visconti’s alleged verbosity in interviews.2 Visconti said the reconciliation, when it came, was simple: Bowie just called him up one day and asked him to make a record. As it happened, Visconti reappeared just as Bowie’s relationship with Gabrels had begun to fray. By the end of 1999, Gabrels was gone; Visconti has been Bowie’s collaborator ever since.

“Safe in This Sky Life” was cut from the Rugrats film during editing, after the sequence for which it was intended was deleted. There was apparently nowhere else in the movie for the song to go (not even over the end credits?). “He delivered a song far beyond my wildest dreams, and now I can’t even use it,” Rachtman lamented to the press. Bowie, saying that the song “doesn’t fit in with what I’m doing at the moment,” put it on the shelf.

rugrta

The released version of “Safe” is one Bowie and Visconti recorded during the Heathen sessions in 2001. All that remains in it from the 1998 take are the string tracks, Visconti said.

So it’s difficult, even foolhardy, to speculate what the original sounded like based on its remake. The guitars, played possibly by Mark Plati or Bowie himself, do sound as if they’re tracing over Gabrels’ original lines. But much of  “Safe” feels as if you’ve heard it somewhere before in the Bowie catalog. The verses begin with close to the same top melody as “The Supermen” (cf. “When all the world was heavy hung” to “frozen to the glass again“). There’s a “period” synthesizer effect that sounds like the Stylophone of “Space Oddity” at times. Visconti’s strings, anticipating and parrying the vocal, have a massed lushness that calls back to the likes of “Win” or “In the Heat of the Morning.”

It’s a song as a series of sensory triggers: its dramatic moments—the rising chord progression in the verses, the guitar-smeared shifts to the chorus, the long-held “skyyyliiiiiifes”—suggest a common idea of a “great” Bowie song. “Safe” rewarded your perseverance as a fan: this is what you wanted, and here it is, better than you imagined. (Matt Chamberlain’s drumming could power a small city). It’s Bowie starring as “Bowie”; it was as if he was covering himself. The lyric also carefully matches a gentle conservatism (safety, acceptance, resignation) with a spiritual yearning—after all, it began as a song for hip parents. It’s a lovely song, one of his best of the period, and there’s something hollow inside it.

velvet

So what did he think about Glam being big again?

“Was it really?” he says in his campest ‘suits you sir’ voice. “I felt that it was a synthetic recycling on the back of the belief that Velvet Goldmine would be a smash movie and be able to sell all those spin-off books and records. It was PR led. It didn’t come from the streets. When I saw the film I thought the best thing about it was the gay scenes, the only successful part of the film frankly. The film didn’t understand how innocent everyone was then about what they were getting into,” he says, pausing for a moment. “Also there was a lot more shopping.”

Bowie, interview by Andrew Davies, The Big Issue, January 1999.

When Bowie and Visconti first cut “Safe,” glam nostalgia was thick in the air, thanks in part to Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, released in autumn 1998. A barely-veiled Bowie biopic as directed by an obsessive Bowiephile (it even has characters based on Kenneth Pitt and Corrinne Schwab), Velvet Goldmine was the middle piece of a trilogy Haynes made about pop stars and stardom. Superstar enacted the tragedy of Karen Carpenter via Barbie dolls; I’m Not There would split Bob Dylan into six incarnations of fan myths, from amphetamine hipster to Guthrie disciple.4

Haynes had sent Bowie an early version of Velvet Goldmine’s script and had asked to use seven songs (“All the Young Dudes,” “Sweet Thing,” “Lady Stardust,” “Moonage Daydream,” Bowie’s cover of “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Lady Grinning Soul,” and the title track). Despite lobbying by Michael Stipe and Kim Gordon, Bowie denied Haynes permission. He didn’t like the script, he said: all that his analogue character, Brian Slade, did was give blow jobs.

You can see his point: Slade, played blankly by Jonathan Rhys-Myers, has no inner life; he’s just a series of beautiful reactions. Haynes’ film was sharp, some of its casting was inspired (Toni Colette’s tragic Angela Bowie), and it was lovingly detailed.5 But for Bowie Goldmine came off as obnoxious and cynical (in perhaps the same way he would find this project misguided and tone-deaf.)6 Haynes film was an aging glam fan’s perspective, rewriting the glam era as a collective fan myth (hence Slade winds up as an Eighties fascist global pop icon, sporting Billy Idol hair). The film’s language was half-remembered Bowie gossip; it played with pieces of Bowie’s life for sport. It cast Bowie as a character in someone else’s drama, where Bowie had always written his own lines.

That said, there was another reason for Bowie’s rejection. In 1998, he was planning a Ziggy Stardust film of his own, and didn’t want his songs appear in what he considered a competitor picture.

golmine

This Ziggy Stardust project was first mentioned in autumn 1998, and it seems to have filled the gap left by the collapse of the Outside sequels and concerts (see the upcoming “Seven”). The grandiosity of the Ziggy plan, its wild scope matched by apparently nothing resembling a budget or a workable blueprint, suited Bowie’s restless mood of the time: his jumping from film to film; his agreeing to host a season of The Hunger; his various immersions in the Internet and video games.

It’s hard to tell just how far the Ziggy project ever got: were there scripts commissioned? sets designed? (probably the latter: he always loved making set models.) Ziggy was supposed to appear in 2002 to commemorate the album’s 30th anniversary. It would be a three-pronged attack. A film (“an objective piece about how [Ziggy] is viewed and perceived by his audience,” Bowie said—so, in other words, Velvet Goldmine), a theater piece (“more internal, more reflective of the immediate repercussions of Ziggy and his effect on the people around him…his close intimates, how he thinks and what his perception of the world really is,” possibly including mime sequences) and “Internet” (the latter would be “pure fun, with hypertext links so you can find out who his mum was, and things like that—a huge exploration of his background. It’s sort of factground, and startlingly info-packed maps and photographs“).

Naturally, there would be tie-ins: a new book of photos by Mick Rock, a DVD with rare concert footage and a double-CD with unearthed and re-recorded Ziggy Stardust outtakes (including the legendary “Black Hole Kids”). In an interview with Radio One’s The Net in 1998, Bowie waxed effusive: “..I’ve found bits and pieces of songs that I obviously had written for [Ziggy Stardust] but never finished off. It’s as if I’ll be complementing what’s already there with other pieces that were started but not actually finished at the time, so they have an authenticity of the period about them. For me, I think it’ll be an extraordinary thing to see what kind of animal it becomes eventually!…It’s just a question of finishing off what might be a 90-second or a two-minute piece, taking it obviously the way it wanted to go and finishing it off and keeping the sound of the material in the period.”

(This idea—Bowie taking a scrap from an old session and working it into a releasable track, is the closest he’s come to explaining alleged “Berlin-era” outtakes like “I Pray Ole.“)

Gabrels thought the project had the potential for disaster. The only way it could have worked, he later said, would be to record the new Ziggy songs at Trident Studios with Ken Scott or Visconti, using only 16-track decks and keeping to the instruments that Mick Ronson and Bowie had used in 1971: Mellotron, Moog, recorder, 12-string acoustic, a single Les Paul guitar with a Cry Baby Wah-Wah pedal. If you’re going for nostalgia, get the details as right as Todd Haynes did. If not, Bowie’s new Ziggy tracks risked sounding like the surviving Beatles’ ghost-duets with John Lennon in the Anthology series: a glossy simulacrum of his old music, made palatable by nostalgia and the indulgence of fans.

The Ziggy project apparently died around the turn of the century. By 2002, when Ziggy Stardust‘s 30th anniversary was only commemorated by a CD that repackaged the Rykodisc extras, Bowie told Rolling Stone that “I’m running like fuck from that [idea]…Can you imagine anything uglier than a nearly 60-year-old Ziggy Stardust? I don’t think so! We actually tried a few years ago to pull a movie together but at every turn it was like…” Ziggy Stardust deserved to remain an idea, a fan memory, he said, rather than “presenting some nerd in a red wig, having run through a really slack arsed movie script.”

ratsfoiledagain

So: a seeming debacle avoided. Yet the Ziggy project still had consumed much of Bowie’s time around the turn of the millennium, and it paralleled his decision to rerecord his old Mod songs for Toy. Both of these, his biggest ambitions in 1999-2000, would wind up as unreleased failures; both were excavations and reworkings of past glories. It’s easy to see why he didn’t have much time for the present. He’d been used to making knight’s moves across the board; now, with his pieces depleted, he was left to devise workable defenses.

“Safe,” a “Bowie-sings-‘Bowie'” track intended for and scrapped by a cartoon soundtrack, and which wound up being issued as its own obscure cover, sums up this period as well as anything could. There’s a majesty in “Safe,” but it’s a borrowed majesty. One line from it in particular could serve as the credo of Bowie’s post-millennial years:

…From now on,
The things will move more slowly…

Recorded (“Safe in This Sky Life”) ca. August 1998, unreleased. “Safe,” cut during the Heathen sessions of July-September 2001, was released as a download for BowieNet subscribers in June 2002, then as a B-side of the “Everybody Says ‘Hi'” CD single on 16 September 2002. The only edition of Heathen on which it appears (in a longer edit) is the rare SACD.

The Ziggy Stardust Companion was especially valuable for this entry, as it’s compiled the most details about Bowie’s reaction to Velvet Goldmine as well as the ill-fated Ziggy revival.

1 Cited by Bowie as one of his top 100 books. The list is as much an exhibition piece as the Ziggy Stardust costumes of Bowie’s ongoing show: it’s a scavenger hunt for fans.

2: There’s a detail in Marcello Carlin’s wonderful piece on ABC’s The Lexicon of Love: that Visconti and Bowie visited ABC during Lexicon‘s recording, and that Bowie was taken by “The Look of Love” in particular. You wonder if Bowie had stuck with Visconti for Let’s Dance (recorded in late 1982) instead of using Nile Rodgers, whether that record would’ve been more in line with what Martin Fry et al were doing at the time.

3 The biographer Dave Thompson claims, citing an anonymous “latter-day associate,” that Bowie had been irritated by Visconti spilling the beans in interviews over the years. However, this theory is weakened by the fact that a few months before Bowie contacted Visconti, Mojo ran an article in which Visconti was on record saying essentially that he and Mick Ronson had co-written The Man Who Sold the World (this was the article that inspired Bowie to snap at journalists to go back to the record and listen again: “no one writes chord changes like that“). If Bowie was so irked by such statements, this was a pretty big one.

4: Though Haynes braced for Dylan to freeze him out like Bowie had, Dylan instead let Haynes use whatever songs he wanted, including the Basement Tapes era title song, released for the first time on the film’s soundtrack.

5: Curt Wild’s band is the Rats; Slade’s first words to Mandy, “do you jive?” were allegedly Bowie’s first words to Angela; a boy recites the Hughes Mearns poem that inspired “Man Who Sold the World”; one of Slade’s press conferences has him say, almost word for word, a notorious line Bowie told Rolling Stone in 1971; and so on and so on.

6: According to David Buckley’s bio, Brian Eno was spied at the cinema, laughing his way through Velvet Goldmine.

Top: Dante Busquets, “Últimos Amarres: Laurie, Mariana y Leslie, Cuernavaca, Mor, 1998”; various shots from The Rugrats Movie (Kovalyov/Virgien, 1998) and Velvet Goldmine (Haynes, 1998).


“Heroes”

May 11, 2011

“Heroes.”
“Heroes” (single edit).
“Helden” (German single, 1977).
“Héros” (French single, 1977).
“Heroes” (broadcast, “The Marc Bolan Show,” 1977).
“Heroes” (broadcast, “Top of the Pops,” 1977).
“Heroes” (live, 1978).
“Heroes” (live, 1983).
“Heroes” (Live Aid, 1985).
“Heroes” (live in Berlin, 1987).
“Heroes” (live, 1990).
“Heroes” (with Mick Ronson and Queen, Freddie Mercury Tribute, 1992).
“Heroes” (live, acoustic, 1996).
“Heroes” (live, 1997).
“Heroes” (live, 2000).
“Heroes” (live, Concert for New York City, 2001).
“Heroes” (live, 2002).
“Heroes” (live, 2003).
“Heroes” (final performance (to date), June 2004).

Berlin, Bowie observes, reflecting upon the environments in which he has produced his last two albums, is a city made up of bars for sad disillusioned people to get drunk in.

“…It’s hard to sing “Let’s all think of peace and love… ” “No, David, why did you say that? That is a stupid remark.” Because that’s exactly where you should arrive…You arrive at a sense of compassion. The title track of “Heroes” is about facing that kind of reality and standing up to it. The only heroic act one can fucking well pull out of the bag in a situation like that is to get on with life from the very simple pleasure of remaining alive, despite every attempt being made to kill you.”

Allan Jones, “Goodbye to Ziggy and All That,” Melody Maker, 29 October 1977.

1. Regions (Nothing Will Drive Them Away)

“Heroes” in the United States, and to a lesser extent in the UK, was a failure. It got only marginal commercial airplay in the US in the ’70s and ’80s (the single even didn’t crack the top 100), with most Americans likely unaware “Heroes” existed until Bowie’s performance of it on Live Aid, if even then. “Heroes” gradually became a global Bowie standard, a consensus masterpiece, but it’s also a late revision to the canon.* In the US, at least, “Heroes” was the Bowie song that was famous somewhere else.

That was Europe (even Bowie noted that “Heroes” “seems to have a special resonance” in Europe, and he certainly tried to sell the single there, cutting German and French versions of the song). Maybe its motorik-inspired groove, indebted to Neu! and Kraftwerk, or Bowie’s at-times declamatory, harsh singing just sounded more familiar, or maybe “Heroes” tapped into something broader, an ominous general mood. In 1977, Europe’s fate was the property of others. Even the continent’s flash point, Berlin, the alleged centerpiece of the Cold War, was irrelevant. If there was to be a war, West Berlin would fall to the Soviets in a day and it likely would be annihilated soon afterward. All of the pointed decadence in West Berlin, all of the parades and drills in the Eastern half, seemed pantomimes by actors out of work.

There’s a lassitude, an echoing, fading grandeur, in the sound of “Heroes”: its dragging beat; its backdrop of squalls and what sound like wayward radio signals;  its lyric, set at the continent’s scarred heart; Bowie’s extravagant, metal-edged vocal; Robert Fripp’s feedback ostinato. “Heroes” is Bowie at his most empathic and at his most desperate, a wish-chant that offers, at best, some tiny regency for the spirit. Bowie, who had once had filled his songs with starmen and calamity children, seems reduced here to a minor scale, despite the talk of kings and dolphins. Any hope “Heroes” offers is meager: we can be better than we are. Only sometimes, and not for long.

2. Reductions (I Drink All the Time)

Interviewer: I remember one lyric [of yours]: “all the nobody people, all the somebody people. I need them.”

DB: Yes, well, that character definitely did, ’cause his world was exploding…That was definitely a character. That was Ziggy Stardust. He was the archetype needing-people rock star.

David Bowie, press conference in Holland, October 1977.

Around 1975, the writer Greil Marcus noticed the rise of “survivors.” He heard the phrase used in TV shows (the title often bestowed upon middle-aged actors promoting a new project), in politics (“Reagan was a survivor,” as per Lou Cannon’s bio), in films and particularly in rock music, where “survivors” were suddenly inescapable: “Soul Survivor,” Street Survivors, “Survival” (the O’Jays single and the Wailers record), “I Will Survive,” with the culmination being a band actually called Survivor.

I grew obsessed with the phenomenon, Marcus wrote at the decade’s end. I seemed to me to speak for everything empty, tawdry, and stupid about the seventies, to stand for every cheat, for every failure of nerve. Language was being debased. “Survivor” had once meant someone who had endured a horror that had killed a great many others—a concentration camp survivor, a plane crash survivor. Now the word applied to anyone remotely competent at living (Queen’s first hit, “Keep Yourself Alive,” could’ve been the motto of the ’70s).

There was something off putting about the sudden prominence of “survivors,” of odes to the simple life and of people being called “heroes” for the mildest of reasons. It was as if, in the decades after WWII, people had come to want too much, had attempted too great a height, and they were now being herded back down, their ambitions reduced to the scope of mere living. Going to work, paying your bills, raising your children, hitting 30, enduring an awful disease—these became “heroic” acts. Everyone alive became a survivor. Common life, as its radical prospects diminished, was exalted.

Bowie’s “Heroes” could seem part of this reduction, an ancestor to the wave of “you’re MY hero” kitsch of the late 20th Century, of Mariah Carey’s “Hero” and “Wind Beneath My Wings,” and it certainly has been interpreted as such.** What saves Bowie’s song from cheap sentimentality is its coldness, the sense that it’s been compromised from the start. We can be kings, we can be heroes, nothing will hurt us, the singer offers at the start of each verse, but he soon backtracks, equivocating, willing to settle for less. We can be us, he sings at last, his voice hissing out the last syllable: could we even venture that?

When Bowie first saw the lovers who inspired his song’s climactic verse, sitting on a bench by the Berlin Wall, he had wondered why they had chosen such a grim place. Did the pair feel shame at what they were doing? Were they meeting where they figured no one would see them? Or were they just bored or restless, pawns playing at being rooks?

The latter wouldn’t be unusual, as West Berlin was where one could play at life. Bowie would describe his Berlin period, which ended in late 1977, as the time when he fell to earth. West Berlin was “a womb,” he said, “a therapeutic city, with a real street level.” Bowie often myth-tinted his doings and so his Berlin years became an exile with the common people: “I had to go down the road and buy food in a shop,” he incredulously told an interviewer in late ’77. So the myth of “Bowie in Berlin,” who lived in a working-class Turkish neighborhood (not quite) and drank in workingmen’s bars unrecognized (not really—only once during the Hansa sessions, when Tony Visconti cropped Bowie’s hair, was Bowie able to walk around without attracting much notice). Still, it was a potent myth: Berlin as the place one went to be a human. Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire and Faraway So Close!, where angels become mortals in Cold War and post-Cold War Berlin, have a trace of Bowie in them.

It’s a shame that “Heroes” is best known in its maimed form, the 7″ single edit, which lops off about two minutes of the track so that the song begins with its third verse (“I wish you could swim”). It’s the version used for Stanley Dorfman’s promo film, included on ChangesBowie and the version Bowie would perform most often on stage.

The edit weakens the song. It’s not just that the buildup to the last two verses is now too brief (the Bowie vocal fireworks start at 1:23 in the single, but don’t appear until 3:16 in the original), but the lyric’s also thrown out of whack. The original song opens with a grandiose claim: “I, I will be king” (the wording deliberately stilted, calling back to ’60s pop dramas like “I Who Have Nothing”). Then in the second verse, the artifice suddenly falls away:

And you, you can be mean
And I, I drink all the time.
‘Cause we’re lovers, and that is a fact
Yes we’re lovers, and that is that.

The intimacy of these lines, sung by Bowie close to the mic, in his lower register (and obscured in the mix, so the first line sounds like “you could be me”) are key to the song. This verse is the reality: a pair of lovers trapped in routine, seeing no way out. A man and a woman face each other across a table, reading each other’s faces for signs, their only freedom left in dreams. It’s all in the way Bowie sings “that is that,” quietly, with no emotion, a settled fact in a settled life.

This is what makes the later verses, which, starting with the fourth (the repeat of “I will be king”), are sung in Bowie’s “epic” register (see below), all the sadder. The singer, growing increasingly desperate, can barely keep his fantasies from blurring together. I will be king! You will be queen!, he nearly shrieks, while the following line brings the ominous “nothing will drive them away.” Who are “them”? Is it some further delusion that their love is so precious someone would want to kill it?

Until the last verse, the song’s been abstract, its setting could be anywhere (like the empty backdrop in Bowie’s promo film for it). Then the lovers are suddenly by the Wall, the guns firing above them: they’re brave, and could be about to die. Bowie sings the lines in one sustained, howling scream. It’s cathartic as it is baffling. Are the guards shooting at them, or is their meeting so insignificant that the guards don’t even notice them? Some have interpreted the lines as meaning the lovers are separated by the Wall, like some Pyramus and Thisbe in Berlin, others that the pair is trying to escape East Berlin (but then why is “all the shame on the other side,” where they’re trying to flee?). I’d say the details don’t really matter: the Wall verse is as much a fantasy as being a king for a day or swimming like a dolphin. It’s the dream of someone in the muddle of life, wishing that his empty days and his shabby love affair had some grandeur, finding dignity even in tyranny.

3. Reconnoiterings (Nothing Will Keep Us Together)

“Heroes” began out of pique. Bowie, irritated by Iggy Pop scrapping much of his original music for “Success,” was still toying with a G-C-D chord sequence and a vocal melody, reworking the piece with Brian Eno in rehearsals. Eno soon wanted to call it “Heroes,” as the song, even in embryo, had a rousing, propulsive feel (also, “Heroes” would also reference Neu!’s “Hero,” (from Neu! 75), complementing the Kraftwerk tribute “V-2 Schneider”).

At Hansa Studios, Bowie tried out “Heroes,” existing mainly in fragments, with his regular band: Dennis Davis, Carlos Alomar and George Murray. In a few hours they had built up the song, Alomar working out guitar riffs that would become the track’s underlying rhythmic hooks (like the twining, dancing three-part figure that plays over lines like “nothing will keep us together”). “Heroes” had a “plodding rhythm and tempo,” Bowie later said, which was intentional: it was another reworking of “I’m Waiting For the Man,” a song that had obsessed Bowie for ten years. Eno and Bowie, considering the ’70s German bands the natural heirs to the Velvet Underground, had taken the VU drone and translated it into motorik.

Eno’s main contribution was his EMS synthesizer, which plays throughout the track, its oscillators reduced to a low frequency rate (Visconti estimated five cycles per second) and using a noise filter: the result, Visconti said, was the “shuddering, chattering effect [that] slowly builds up and gets more and more obvious towards the end.”

As with many of Bowie’s songs on “Heroes”, the title song’s foundation is simple: five verses, some expanded with a six-bar chorus tag, and finally a refrain of sorts to close things out. “Heroes,” in D major, is primarily the three-chord sequence proposed for “Success”: the verses (and the intro/solo sections) move between D and G major, with the arrival of C major (on, for example, “nothing, nothing will keep us together”) and a two-bar foray into A minor and E minor (on “beat them” and “forever”), briefly disrupting the pattern.

(“Heroes” appears to be in the “D mixolydian” mode—basically, Bowie drops what would be the dominant (V) chord, A major, and replaces it with A minor (and follows it up with E minor). So he’s essentially swapping chords from D major’s parallel minor, D minor, then quickly shuttling back to the major tonic chord, D (so the verse’s climactic sequence of Am-Em-D is v-ii-I)).

It’s unclear if “Heroes” was originally intended as an instrumental. Eno has said he thought it was, and that Robert Fripp’s guitar work was crafted with this in mind, hence Fripp playing all the way through the song.

As it turned out, Fripp’s guitar became a high chorus to Bowie’s multi-gated vocal. On Eno’s Another Green World or other “Heroes” tracks like “Joe the Lion,” Fripp was the variable, breaking open songs, his guitar coming in like a thunderclap. On “Heroes,” he’s there from the beginning, his guitar hanging in the upper atmosphere throughout, singing to itself; his feedback-laden lines suggesting the arrival of a grand melody that never quite comes. It’s a continual promise, never fulfilled.

While most guitarists that took on “Heroes” had to use an Ebow to get Fripp’s sound, playing a sustained run of A notes, Fripp had worked out the feedback patterns on foot, literally. Standing in Hansa’s Studio 2, his guitar routed through Eno’s EMS synthesizer, Fripp marked with tape the places on the studio floor where he could get a feedback loop on any given note. So four feet away from his amp was an A, three feet away was a G, and so on. Fripp stepped and swayed through the song, his sound owed to a simple cartography.

Fripp ran through three takes, and the trebly nature of his playing (further distorted live by Eno’s EMS) meant that each solo on its own sounded thin and wavering. So Tony Visconti blended all three together, eventually bouncing them down to a single track, to achieve what Visconti called “a dreamy, floaty effect.”

As “Heroes” developed, Visconti further emphasized the pulsating drone by tweaking the rhythm tracks. Typically kick drum and snare drums are put in the forefront of a rock mix, but now Visconti buried Dennis Davis’ kick and instead brought up the bassline (played both by Murray’s bass and on one of Alomar’s guitar tracks), so that the latter bolstered the shuddering feel of Fripp’s guitar tracks and Eno’s low-oscillating synthesizer.

So much of “Heroes” is owed to improvisations. An intended horn section (at the start of the second verse) was replaced by a “brass” noise on Bowie’s Chamberlin (“it sounds more like a weedy little violin patch,” Visconti later said), while the Alomar/Murray basslines had been originally considered as string parts. When overdubbing percussion Bowie and Visconti even made do without a cowbell, instead using an empty tape canister that Visconti thwacked with a drumstick (it first appears at 2:55). The only other percussion is a tambourine that crops up in the final verse (at 3:56) and runs through the remainder of the track.

4. Reverberations (You Will Be Queen)

Though the backing track was finished, Bowie waited for weeks to write a lyric, then patched it together in one go. Listening to playback in his headphones, Bowie would write a line or two and swiftly get his vocal down on tape. Visconti would rewind to where Bowie had left off, then he’d write and record another line. (It’s in part why Bowie’s singing on “Heroes” doesn’t flow as much as it seems like a series of dramatic pauses and sudden stabs of phrases.)

Where the lyric of “Station to Station” had been a profusion of imagery hauled out of Bowie’s inventory of obsessions, “Heroes” is far more minimal, its words simple and precisely chosen. Bowie drew from two main sources, both European, both postwar(s). One was the short story “A Grave For A Dolphin” by the Italian aristocrat Alberto Denti Di Pirajno, which details a doomed affair between an Italian soldier and an Somalian girl during the Second World War (it inspired the “dolphins can swim” verse).*** (Bowie also nicked the occasional line from elsewhere: “I will be king, you will be queen” is from the English folk song “Lavender’s Blue,” which Bowie would sing onstage sometimes as a prelude to “Heroes.”)

Bowie had also been taken with an Otto Mueller painting he had seen in Die Brücke Museum, Liebespaar Zwischen Gartenmauern (Lovers Between Garden Walls), which Mueller had painted as World War I was ending. Bowie transplanted Meuller’s image of two lovers embracing by a high stone wall, placing them before the Wall that Bowie saw every day from Hansa’s control room window. As legend has it, Bowie was looking out that very window when he spied Visconti (who was married at the time, to Mary Hopkin) and the singer Antonia Maass embracing by the Wall. At once he had found his lyric’s resolution, a snapshot of love and bravery set against the concrete madness of governments, despite it being a shabby act, a man cheating on his wife. (The story, essential to the legend of “Heroes,” might not be true.****)

With Fripp, who usually provided the dramatics, instead working in the chorus line, it was left to Bowie to provide the contrast to the track’s overall stasis. The drama had to come with the vocal, and Bowie planned his singing as though he meant to take an entrenched position from a rival force.

Visconti set up three Neumann microphones in Studio 2, placing the first, a valve U47, directly in front of Bowie, about nine inches away from his face (using “fairly heavy compression, because I knew beforehand that he really was going to shout”). The second, a U87 stood about 15 to 20 feet away from Bowie and the third, another U87, was at the end of the room, some 50 feet away. The latter two mics had electronic gates: they would be switched off until triggered by Bowie hitting a certain volume. Once they were turned on, they would capture the sound of the entire room ringing with Bowie’s voice. (This also meant that Bowie, once he had triggered the other mics, had to go at full blast to keep them on, hence the histrionic tone of his singing—he sounds unhinged at times.)

The vocal was done in three takes (Visconti said most of the final vocal is from the last take, with a few punch-ins to correct stray notes). Bowie immediately moved to recording two tracks of backing vocals with Visconti (hence the faint Brooklyn accent you hear on “I remember” and “wall”), harmonizing in thirds and fifths below the lead vocal. The backing chorus, which generally comes in on the last note of each lead vocal phrase, is the last essential ingredient of the song—until now the singer’s been alone in his fantasies, so having another voice back him up adds a sense of reassurance at last. From the first line Bowie wrote and sang, to the last punch-in edit, it had taken about five hours.

5. Reputations (All the Shame Was On the Other Side)

For whatever reason, for whatever confluence of circumstances, Tony, Brian and I created a powerful, anguished, sometimes euphoric language of sounds. In some ways, sadly, they really captured, unlike anything else in that time, a sense of yearning for a future that we all knew would never come to pass.

David Bowie, Uncut interview, 1999.

Bowie promoted “Heroes” across two continents, made a promo film, talked to any interviewer who would have him, but the single stiffed, only reaching #24 in the UK and not cracking the Billboard 100 in the US. “Heroes” soon took on another life, becoming a favorite on tour, and Bowie eventually would tailor it for grand moments—closing his Live Aid set with it, playing it in his tribute to Freddie Mercury and his tribute to the dead of 9/11. Of course “Heroes” has also been used to sell mobile phones, software, digital film, life insurance, football matches, HBO’s Latin American programming, hockey and rock star video games; it’s promoted a dopey comic book TV series, while a cover by the Wallflowers was used in an abysmal ’90s Godzilla remake.

None of this has reduced the original “Heroes.” One could argue it’s even strengthened the song. It seems to have been intended as a gift, crafted to be dispersed, to be carried in the air, used by whoever would have it.

At the Hurricane Festival in Scheeßel (the story ends back in Germany, as it seemingly had to), on 25 June 2004, Bowie closed his set with a restrained “Heroes.” He did a few other standards as encores, then he collapsed backstage, suffering what appears to have been a heart attack. Hurricane was the sudden end of the tour, and in retrospect seems the close of Bowie’s professional life. He’s appeared a couple more times on stage (last in 2006), but Hurricane was the terminus: there’ve been no more tours, no more records since.

So closing what could be his last show with “Heroes” seems fitting and just. “Heroes,” the most generous of Bowie’s songs, and possibly the saddest, sounds like Bowie’s farewell, fallen out of time.

Resources

Recorded at Hansa by the Wall, July-August 1977. Released as a single in September 1977 (RCA PB 1121, #24 UK), as were “Helden” (RCA PB 9168)—some argue it’s the definitive version of the song, and Bowie’s vocal is pretty tremendous (“ICH!!! ICH BIN DANN KOENIG!”)—and the French “Héros,” (RCA PB 9167), the dud of the bunch. Performed in every Bowie tour since 1978.

Along with the usual suspects in the “sources” list at the right side of the page (esp. Trynka, Pegg and Buckley), of great help for this entry was Phil Sutcliffe’s article on “Heroes” for Q, August 2005; Visconti’s essential interview with Sound on Sound, 2004, and his interview for the great, lost documentary Rock & Roll (1995: episode 7: “The Wild Side”); Mat Snow’s “Making ‘Heroes'” in Mojo‘s 60 Years of Bowie special (2007); guitar tabs in Play Guitar With David Bowie, which unfortunately is just for the single cut. Marcus’ “survivor” piece is his wonderful “Rock Death in the 1970s: A Sweepstakes,” Village Voice, 17 December 1979 (later collected in Fascist Bathroom).

Photos, top to bottom: Sibylle Bergemann, “Berlin, Palast der Republik,” 1978; Mueller, Liebespaar Zwischen Gartenmauern (1919);  “Englehaftetraumstoffe,” “Berlin, Ost 1977”; John Spooner, “Berlin Wall, 1978”; Unknown photog. (Landesbildstelle), East Berlin border at Niederkirchner Strasse, January 1977; Christian Simonpietri, “Eno, Fripp and Bowie,” Hansa Studios, ca. July 1977; “Klaus183,” Berlin Wall, 1978; Masayoshi Sukita, cover of “Heroes” (referencing Heckel’s Roquairol (1917) (as was the cover of The Idiot); “Helden” sleeve, 1977.

* In the US, its closest counterpart would be “The Man Who Sold The World”: a relative obscurity until the mid-1990s, now a Bowie standard.

** Most recently, and most terribly, in the version by the X Factor contestants, who took it to #1 in the UK last year (imagine if “Stars on 45” had charted higher than any actual Beatles singles).

*** Of course, Bowie would eventually marry a Somalian woman. He referenced the Denti novel in his introduction to her I Am Iman (2001).

**** Tobias Rüther, in his Helden: David Bowie und Berlin (2008), interviewed Maass, who claimed the lines weren’t about her and Visconti, as “Heroes” had been completed before their affair started, and that Bowie couldn’t have seen them together anyhow. Someone should do a feminist reading of the song—the male gaze (Bowie), the male protagonist (Visconti) and the oft-forgotten woman who claims that none of the story is true.


Black Country Rock

January 24, 2010

Black Country Rock.

“Black Country Rock” was the provisional title Mick Ronson and Tony Visconti gave to a riff-happy jam they had worked up in the studio, and Bowie, facing a deadline, dashed out a single verse and chorus based on the title.

Recording his vocal, Bowie decided to parody his friend/rival Marc Bolan, who was readying to become a pop star (T. Rex’s “Ride a White Swan,” their first top 10 hit, was recorded a few months after this), delivering a merciless imitation of Bolan’s singing voice (especially in the last chorus repeat, where Bowie bleats out “fond adieuuuuuuuuuuu”). Visconti, amused, thinned Bowie’s vocal track with an equalizer so that it sounded even more like Bolan’s (the “my friend” in the last chorus is so on the money you’d swear it was a Bolan vocal overdub).

“Black Country Rock,” straight-up album filler, is of interest mainly for Ronson, who makes the track a primer on how to economically arrange a song, deploying four guitar riffs as motifs. The first riff, a vault from his low to high strings in E, and the second (a needling little hook ending back in E) appear in Ronson’s intro, then serve as motifs in the verse, with riff 2 reappearing on every other bar, while riff 1 links each eight-bar verse together.

The chorus has the other two—the low-end riff 3 appears at the end of the first line, while riff 4 (mainly just two notes over and over again, sometimes bent) closes out the chorus and twice extends into a 16-bar solo (with riff 2 reappearing to transition back to the verse). For a throwaway track, it’s impressive enough: a number of mediocre ’70s rock bands would build whole careers out of this sort of thing.

Recorded ca. 12-22 May 1970; on side A of The Man Who Sold the World and issued as the B-side of “Holy Holy” in 1971.

Top: Mickey Finn, Marc Bolan and their jawlines practice LP cover poses, summer 1970.


The Width of a Circle

January 3, 2010

The Width of a Circle (Man Who Sold the World).
The Width of a Circle (live, 1972).
The Width of a Circle (live, 1973).
The Width of a Circle (live, last Spiders gig, 1973.)
The Width of a Circle (live, 1974).

The devil has the most extensive perspectives for God; on that account he keeps so far away from him.

Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: “Apothegms and Interludes.”

Circumference: Much of David Bowie’s ’60s music was weak (compared to his contemporaries), partly because Bowie was young and unformed, partly because he lacked a creative equal as a collaborator. Sixties Bowie can seem isolated, his records the work of an autodidact. In the first months of 1970, Bowie finally found, to quote Charlie Parker, a worthy constituent.

Mick Ronson was from Hull. As a child he played piano, violin and recorder until settling on the guitar (one reason, he later said, was that you got grief for walking around Hull with a violin case). He had played in local bands in the ’60s, but at the start of the ’70s he was working as a groundsman for the Hull City Council, marking rugby pitches. One of his old bandmates, Bowie’s drummer John Cambridge, told him that Bowie was looking for a new lead guitarist. Ronson came to London and met Bowie again (the two had first crossed paths at a 1969 recording session); two days afterward Bowie and Ronson first played together at a concert taped for the BBC. One song was a new Bowie composition, “The Width of a Circle.”

Bowie likely wrote “Circle” in late 1969, as its first draft is a surreal folkie excursion (centered on Bowie’s 12-string acoustic) in the vein of Space Oddity LP tracks like “Cygnet Committee” or “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed.”

On the BBC track, the first recorded version of “Width,” you can hear Ronson thinking aloud—filling in spaces, working out angles. He would turn “Width of a Circle” into a high mass for the electric guitar, leaving Bowie a bystander in his own song. By 1973 Bowie was letting Ronson solo for ten minutes on “Width” while he went backstage for a costume change.

Diameter: Ronson broke and reassembled “Width,” opening it (and The Man Who Sold the World LP, as it turned out) with an ominous, sliding guitar riff. Ronson loved Led Zeppelin, the Hendrix Experience and Cream, and took from their records how to anchor a track with a titanic riff. While Ronson’s opening “Width” riff appears in the first BBC recording, it emerges tentatively after eight bars of Bowie’s strumming, and soon is lost in the sprawl of the ramshackle performance (the under-rehearsed players seem to be running through ideas and using whatever they can remember: a riff from “Unwashed” flashes by at 1:25).

By the time the studio take of “Width” was recorded two months later, Ronson had made his riff the cornerstone of the track. After a brief squall of feedback, Ronson slides along his A string to his fifth, fourth and second frets. He repeats the riff, now mirrored by Bowie’s acoustic guitar, now shadowed by Tony Visconti’s bass, now with the entire band hitting on it.

The riff only appears once more (after the third verse, just before the “second half” of the song), but Ronson’s guitar dominates the rest of the track by various means. In the first three verses, Ronson repeatedly uses another motif, a bit of fast riffing (E-E7-E), to fill in after Bowie’s pauses and to rev up the ends of lines. Most of all, there’s his first solo, a 40-bar series of staggered explosions that begins with Ronson bending a G string as if he intends to snap it off. Loud, fleet (Ronson plays the same lick nine times in five seconds) and magnificent, the solo is Ronson’s grand debut: nothing of its like had ever been on a Bowie record.

Secant: “Width of a Circle” lacked an ending. Bowie’s original version petered out after two verses (listen to the first BBC recording, where, after a Ronson solo, everyone trudges along for a minute-plus of aimless guitar). Ronson and Visconti, who did much of the arranging, mixing and playing on The Man Who Sold The World, decided that “Width” needed a second half. On one take, they played what Visconti described as a “spontaneous boogie riff,” which they liked so much they appended it to the song and asked Bowie to come up with melodies and lyrics for it.

So Bowie, faced with a suddenly-elongated song, had to write a batch of fresh lyrics. And where his original verses are odd and nightmarish (the two opening stanzas, which are filled with dreamscapes, Nietzchean steals (“the monster was me”), a few striking lines (“God’s a young man, too”) and hip references (Khalil Gibran, whose A Tear and a Smile was standard-issue for a hippie’s library, along with Brautigan poems and Watership Down)), the newer ones grow increasingly ridiculous. The quartet of verses Bowie wrote for the “boogie riff” section—in which his narrator has rough sex with a demon (or a god, or himself, or all of the above), with lines like “his tongue swollen with devils’ love” or “I smelled the burning pit of fear”—are worthy of Spinal Tap.

Ronson and Visconti mortared in the cracks, trying to make the second half sound like a natural extension of the earlier song. Ronson piled on yet more guitar, whether in his second solo, an elaboration on the dirty D-based blues riff that he used to propel the “boogie” verses forward, or in the way he introduces the new section with a soaring guitar line that Bowie then sings. Visconti’s bass is mixed so high in the track (Ronson’s doing, Visconti later claimed) that at times it’s the lead melodic instrument, hitting against Bowie’s vocal in the final verses, tolling under Ronson’s first solo.

The track ends with a quotation (on drums) from Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.” Given what’s come before, it doesn’t seem too over the top.

Tangent: On stage, “Width of a Circle” became even more grandiose. In a concert recorded in Santa Monica in late 1972, Ronson is all vicious power chording and shredding; by the final Spiders from Mars show in July 1973, Ronson’s opening solo has become a primer for metal guitarists—one-handed playing, steeplechase runs, often accompanied by Ronson’s classic “guitar face.” It’s as impressive as it is wearying.

After Bowie and Ronson parted company, Bowie rearranged “Width” for his “Diamond Dogs” tour of summer 1974. As if he was trying to reclaim his song, Bowie downplayed guitar in favor of saxophone and keyboards. But Bowie’s new guitarist Earl Slick delivered a squalling solo of his own midway through the performances—Ronson had made the song a guitarist’s feast, and Slick wasn’t one to abstain.

Arc: “Width” was recorded twice in BBC sessions, on 5 February and 25 March 1970 (the former, hosted by John Peel, is on Bowie at the Beeb); the LP cut is from April-May 1970; the recording from Santa Monica, Calif., 20 October 1972, was put out on disc a few years ago; the version from the last Spiders From Mars concert at the Hammersmith, 3 July 1973, is on Ziggy Stardust: the Motion Picture; the “Diamond Dogs” tour recording, from Philadelphia on 11-12 July 1974 , is on David Live.

Top: Robert Smithson, “Spiral Jetty,” completed in 1970.


Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud

November 30, 2009

Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (B-side).
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (LP).
Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud (live, 1973).

“Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” is another of Bowie’s Tibetan songs, completing a cycle that began in fact (“Silly Boy Blue”), evolved into half-myth (“Karma Man”) and now ends as a fable, fit for a bedtime story or a puppet show. The ancestor of “Freecloud” is Bowie’s mime piece Yet San and the Eagle, the story of a Tibetan boy living under Chinese Communist oppression, and “Freecloud” seems as if it was meant to accompany the movements of actors, with the lyric sometimes doubling as stage directions (the hangman “folds the rope into its bag” or “so the village dreadful yawns”).

But the wild boy of Freecloud isn’t just a Tibetan monk under an assumed name—he’s also uncorrupted youth in nature, whose very existence offends the worldlings who live meanly in the village below him. Bowie described his storyline in an October 1969 interview with Disc & Music Echo: the boy “lives on a mountain and has developed a beautiful way of life…I suppose in a way he’s rather a prophet figure. The villagers disapprove of the things he has to say and they decide to hang him.” The boy resigns himself to death, only to watch in horror as the mountain takes revenge for him. “So in fact everything the boy says is taken the wrong way—both by those who fear him and those who love him.”

Feral children and noble savages cropped up everywhere in the late ‘60s and ‘70s, from Kaspar Hauser in Herzog’s Jeder Für Sich und Gott Gegen Alle, to Truffaut’s L’enfant Sauvage, to the reclamation of Henry David Thoreau as ur-hippie and draft-dodger (e.g., The Night Thoreau Spent In Jail). The wild boys, hippie Christ figures and other “naturals” served as court jesters for the modern age, or as walking rebukes to a conformist, plastic culture. Society usually converts or kills these types, though as the Wild Boy in Bowie’s song eventually leaves the town in rubble, you can’t really blame society.

“Freecloud” marries Bowie’s theatrical sensibilities with his recent folk leanings—Anthony Newley and Jacques Brel sit alongside Fairport Convention in the gallery. The result is an odd combination of staginess (“as the night…begins for ONE!” the narrator intones, hangman exits stage left) and naturalism, the lyric ranging from the carefully-observed details of the opening verses to the Streisand-esque self-acclamation in the bridge (the “REALLLY YOU and REALLY MEEEE” bit). The whole piece is a catalog of influences: the stage setting of a night before a hanging is out of the Child Ballads, the sense of divine retribution levied on a damned town hails from Brecht/Weill’s “Pirate Jenny” and the loftiness of the lyric describing the mountain (“where the eagle dare not fly” and so on) has a bit of Tolkien in it. (“Freecloud” was Tolkien-head Marc Bolan’s favorite Bowie song).

The Battle of Freecloud

“Freecloud” opens with Bowie playing variations on the D chord—D to Dmaj7 to D7 to D6—basically just supplementing a D chord on his 12-string acoustic guitar with additional notes. The pattern repeats throughout the song: it opens the verses and circles three times through them, the relative similarity of the chords creating a feeling of stasis (they occur even while the boy is singing that he’s really free, suggesting he’s just as trapped as the rest of us). The guitar intro also has the song’s other major motif: a sudden push to C, which Bowie later uses to dramatically end the verses and begin the refrain.

The song’s built like an inverted pyramid, opening with two long descriptive verses, each 11 lines long with no rhymes and no real meter; the pattern is finally broken when Bowie goes into the bridge, which, rhyme-strewn and full of long-held notes, comes as a relief to the ear. The song spirals downward faster and faster, first with something of a refrain (handclaps, the title finally sung), then a turbulent pair of verses that contain the destruction of the village within them. It ends with a quiet 10-bar coda, the boy picking his way free from the rubble while the guitar pattern of the intro reappears, suggesting the cycle will begin again, here or elsewhere.

“Freecloud” was first recorded on 20 June 1969 as the b-side of the “Space Oddity” single and a revised version for the LP was cut roughly a month later. Consider the two versions a struggle between Bowie’s two main producers of the ’60s—Gus Dudgeon, who helmed the spare guitar-and-bass initial recording, and Tony Visconti, who seemed hell-bent on trumping Dudgeon for the LP remake.

Visconti called the Dudgeon recording a “throwaway” (it had been recorded in about twenty minutes) while hearing “a Wagnerian orchestra in my head” for his remake, and the LP version of “Freecloud” is an elaborate one-upmanship to Dudgeon’s “Space Oddity” production: Dudgeon has eight tracks on “Space Oddity”? Visconti has 16 for the new “Freecloud”! Dudgeon uses a dozen or so string and wind players? Visconti gets Philips to fund a 50-piece orchestra, including harp and tympani!

But the orchestral arrangement has an overbearing presence—it begins at top volume and goes upward, so that the chaos of the later verses lacks the dramatic force it should have. It’s a crowded party in which each guest tries to dominate the conversation: nearly every line Bowie sings is accompanied by some swoop of strings, brass blast, harp plucks, or tympani crashes. It may be the old punk purist in me, but I find the original B-side recording—a duet between Bowie’s 12-string acoustic guitar and Paul Buckmaster on Arco bass (not cello, as many references have it)—has a cold severity and power that eludes the Visconti production. Because a fable only really needs a voice.

The Ronson-led 1973 live performance linked above, in which “Freecloud” segues into “All the Young Dudes” as if it was always meant to do, is a marvel.

Top: “Vietnamese civilians, countryside,” taken by Lt. Commander Charles H. Roszel, 1969.


When I’m Five

November 2, 2009

68kidsn

When I’m Five (demo, 1968).
When I’m Five (BBC Top Gear 1968 recording; promo film).
When I’m Five (1969 demo).

Als das Kind Kind war,
erwachte es einmal in einem fremden Bett
und jetzt immer wieder,
erschienen ihm viele Menschen schön
und jetzt nur noch im Glücksfall.

(When the child was a child,
it awoke once in a strange bed,
and now does so again and again,
many people seemed beautiful,
and now only a few do, by chance.)

Peter Handke, “Lied vom Kindsein.”

Thereafter all his dreams and plays were inspired by the magic words, “When I’m five an’ can see.” The sentence served as a mental spring-board to jump his imagination off into a world of wonder where he could see “dest—dest as good as big folks.”

Margaret Prescott Montague, “What Mr. Grey Said.”

“When I’m Five” is a sung by a child who wants to be a child. Or to be more precise, a true child, a child of five or seven, one who seemingly has the business of childhood sorted out. Age is the most salient of childhood’s hierarchies; age truly matters, each year has its own weight and presence, in a way it never quite does again. To a four-year-old, a seven-year-old (the first climacteric year, the year of permanent teeth) is an aspiration, a 10-year-old is a high master, while those over 13 belong to the Great Otherwhere, a sullen land full of dark, awful mystery.

Bowie’s “When I’m Five” is a thematic sequel to “There Is a Happy Land” (not just thematic—Bowie reuses “Happy Land”‘s bridge). Where the latter was sung by an all-seeing narrator who occasionally took the voice of the children he observed, “When I’m Five” is entirely first-person. It’s both endearing and embarrassing—Bowie sings in a pinched, awkward voice (matched visually by his mime-like performance in the promo film Love You Till Tuesday) and performs without a trace of self-consciousness. It feels quite personal for a Bowie lyric, which up until now have rarely been autobiographical: there’s a reference to “my Grandfather Jones,” as well as a crying father and a mother who keeps secrets tucked away in a drawer.

While “When I’m Five” is embedded deep in the mind of childhood, there’s also a flavor of departure in it—the child wants to grow up, if at first just to be a greater child, but escape and adulthood are his final aims. The adult world, with all its worries, pettiness and wonders (spitting tobacco, marching in army parades, marriage), has come flooding in. After a period in which British pop music had been besotted with childhood, a change appears to be coming, darkness and strife on the horizon.

Bowie cut a demo of the song in early 1968, while the only proper recording he made of it was at a BBC session on 13 May 1968—the BBC version was the soundtrack to the “When I’m Five” sequence in Love You Till Tuesday. The Beatstalkers were convinced to cover the song, and released their bewildered version on their last single, c/w, appropriately, “Little Boy” (CBS 3936). It marked the end, both of the band’s connection to Bowie’s music and of the band itself.


London Bye Ta-Ta

October 29, 2009

68ep

London Bye Ta-Ta.

In Victoria Station Bowie overheard a West Indian family calling “London bye ta-ta!” to relatives boarding a train out of town. And the song Bowie wrote with that title is, in part, about immigrant London: a city that, by the end of the ’60s, had a rising population of West Indians, various Africans, Pakistanis, Indians and other nationalities. Many of the newcomers had been members of the British Commonwealth or of its former colonies—the result was a new complexion for the UK (the BBC: in 1945, Britain’s non-white residents were in the low thousands, by 1970 they were approximately 1.4 million). Reaction was swift: Enoch Powell‘s notoriety (or infamy) began a month after Bowie first recorded “London Bye Ta-Ta,” one of several songs of the period to touch on immigration (not only was The Beatles’ “Get Back” originally a satire on Powell, the “get back to where you once belonged” addressed to Pakistanis, but “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da”‘s title was coined by the Nigerian conga player Jimmy Scott, a friend of McCartney’s.)

One of Bowie’s prettiest ’60s songs, “London Bye Ta-Ta” is also the latest variation on Bowie’s provincials-come-to London theme, in the line of “Can’t Help Thinking About Me,” and “The London Boys.” What’s fine here is a broadening of perspective—two young bohemians meet and flirt, but the singer also realizes they’re part of a greater exodus, mere ripples in a sea of population change. Everyone flooding into town is looking for some form of renewal: a new name, a new face, a better job. “The poet in the clothes shop sold me curry for a pound,” the singer recalls in passing. London has become, seemingly overnight, a strange young town.

It’s a rewrite of “Threepenny Pierrot,” though Bowie greatly improves the song in revision. “Threepenny” is just a catchy chorus and a tinkly little verse; “London Bye Ta-Ta” keeps the chorus but the verse is now in three stages—first just four descending notes (“gi-gi-gi-gi,” “red light green light”) countered by four rising ones (“take me away,” “make up your mind”) punctuated by a clang, then four bars of developing melody (with a third chord, G, finally introduced—it’s only been D and C up to now). It leads to the verse’s final and loveliest four-bar section, in which a neat guitar riff anchors an upward sweep of Tony Visconti’s strings arrangement and, even higher, Bowie’s vocal.

“London Bye Ta-Ta,” as much as it captures the beauty and sweep of a city in the flush of reinventing itself, winds up a tragedy. The two kids don’t make it:

She loves to love all beauty,
And she says the norm is funny
But she whimpers in the morning
When she finds she has no money

“I loved her! I loved her!” the singer pleads with us. But he’s out the door all the same.

Recorded on 12 March 1968 (it was proposed as the B-side to the rejected “In the Heat of the Morning” single); also cut a day later for the BBC (the version linked to above, which is on Bowie at the Beeb). Bowie still thought it had potential and considered it as a follow-up single to “Space Oddity,” cutting a revised version (with Marc Bolan on guitar) between 8-15 January 1970. But it was ultimately scrapped, and the Bolan version wasn’t released until the 1989 Sound and Vision compilation.

Top: London, May Day 1968.