Lust for Life

April 12, 2011

Lust For Life (Pop, 1977).
Lust For Life (Pop, live, 1977).
Lust for Life (Pop, live, 1991).
Lust for Life (Bowie, live, 1996).

So let us start with one average, stupid, representative case: Johnny Yen, the other half, errand boy from the death trauma…His immortality depends on the mortality of others—the same is true of all addicts.

William S. Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded, 1962.

A boy slid off the white bar stool and held out the hand: “Hello, I’m Johnny Yen, a friend of, well, just about anybody.”

Burroughs, The Soft Machine, 1961.

During their days in France and Berlin, Bowie and Pop would watch American television shows on the Armed Forces Network, especially “Starsky and Hutch.” The station ident of the AFN at the time was a radio conning tower (like the old RKO logo) giving off a staccato signal: BEEP-beep-beep, BEEP-BEEP-be-BEEP. One night, watching TV with Pop in his apartment, Bowie took his son Duncan’s ukulele and played the AFN riff on it. The two started building up a song. “Call this one ‘Lust for Life’,” Bowie said.

Pop and Bowie transferred the riff from guitar to drums. Pop had started out as a drummer and he still worked out songs as a form of percussion. So the studio version of “Lust for Life” starts with a 1:10, 30-bar intro, the riff first pounded out on Hunt Sales’ open-tuned toms, soon shadowed by Tony Sales’ bassline. (This is the riff in its primal form—Pop sings most of the second verse over it.)

Sales’ drum riff distills a dozen influences, from the AFN ident to the bassline of “You Can’t Hurry Love” to the swinging, cymbal-rich sound of the jazz drummer Shelly Manne. A beat religion in 4/4, it converts the remaining players: Carlos Alomar and Ricky Gardiner appear, consider counter-melodies or launching a lead solo line (0:05, 0:30), but then, as if pulled into the drums’ orbit, they fall subservient and echo the riff, as does Bowie’s piano. The spell breaks only when Pop brings in Johnny Yen.

Pop improvised much of “Lust for Life”‘s lyric at the mike, though he was pillaging William Burroughs novels for random imagery (flesh machines, hypnotizing chickens). So the song opens with Johnny Yen, the ambisexual gigolo of the Nova trilogy, doing stripteases and getting wrecked on booze and coke (even the classic line “of course I’ve had in the ear before” calls back to Burroughs, as Yen once gets a scalpel shoved in his ear by his sadistic doctor).*

“Lust for Life” is one of the funniest things Pop ever did, bloody with life, filled with Pop non sequiturs that are better than many writers’ entire catalogs (“I’m worth a million in prizes!” and he sings “gimmick called love” like “gimp called love”). Yet there’s a desperation just under the surface, with Pop identifying with Burroughs’ gigolo, realizing he’s become a cartoon, a fool for the world to sport with, and hoping that this record will finally get him off the minstrel circuit. “No more beatin’ my brains,” he mutters in the second verse. “No more sleepin’ on the sidewalk.” Even the title is wordplay—it’ s a homage to Pop’s endless appetites for drugs and self-destruction as well as the over-the-top Vincente Minnelli film about Vincent Van Gogh, another tortured artist who didn’t sell (and who also had in the ear before).

Control addicts prowled the streets trying to influence waiters, lavatory attendants, clochards and were to be seen on every corner of the city hypnotizing chickens.

Burroughs, The Ticket That Exploded.

If “Lust for Life” has a visual analogue, it’s Andrew Kent’s photograph used for the LP cover: a beaming, slightly mad-looking Iggy shot in a dressing room during the March ’77 UK tour. It’s the face of a man ready to harangue the world while he charms it, of a confidence man in sight of a score.

Some of what happened was RCA’s blundering. After Elvis Presley died in August ’77, RCA mass-released all the Elvis product they had in the catalog, and the newly-released Lust for Life became hard to find in record stores. It hit #28 in the UK, but once its first printing sold out, few more were issued. The record, the most commercial thing Pop had ever done, just died. And Pop, faced with success at last, bailed. According to Paul Trynka’s bio, Pop locked himself in the Schlosshotel Gerhus with a “small mountain of cocaine,” staring at the record. He decided he hated the cover photo, that he hated “The Passenger,” that it was all crap. He grew estranged from Bowie. A subsequent tour to promote the album started strongly, then fell apart. Pop fired the Sales brothers. He ended his RCA contract by issuing TV Eye Live, essentially a bootleg of a few ’77 shows. By late 1978, Pop was at the start of the board again, trying yet another comeback.

“Lust for Life,” which along with “The Passenger” was Pop’s post-Stooges masterpiece, had too much life in its bones to stay underground. In the mid-’90s, an edited version of the track used in Trainspotting finally gave the song an audience. It was released as a single and sounded fresher than some of the Britpop then on the charts. A decade later came the farcical climax: “Lust for Life” was chopped down to the opening Sales drum riff and Pop’s line about Johnny Yen for a series of Royal Caribbean TV commercials. It’s appalling, of course (its inappropriateness rivaled only by Chef-Boy-R-Dee’s use of “Hot Stuff”)—a wild junkie gluttony rant used to sell family cruise vacations. But the riff remained compelling, trapped in the TV spots like a feral animal in a cage, while lines from Iggy Pop and William Burroughs still echo through thousands of TV sets like the half-remembered language from a twisted dream.

Recorded 4-20 June 1977, Hansa, Berlin. Performed live by Pop in 1977 and 1991. Bowie, drawn back to the song after Trainspotting came out, performed it occasionally during his 1996 summer festival tours (the link above is from the Loreley Festival, 22 June 1996; Bowie’s set was aired on German television).

* Pop also used a sentence from Naked Lunch (“No one talks, no one reads, no one walks”) for the chorus of “Tonight.”

Top: “Still the Oldie,” “Horserace Experts,” Ripon, Yorkshire, 1977.