Never Get Old

November 5, 2014

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Never Get Old.
Never Get Old (video).
Never Get Old (Vittel ad, edit).
Never Get Old (Today Show, 2003).
Never Get Old (Last Call With Carson Daly, 2003).
Never Get Old (Riverside Studio performance, 2003).
Never Get Old (Die Harald Schmidt Show, 2003).
Never Get Old (live, 2003).
Never Get Old (The Tonight Show, 2004).
Never Get Old (live, 2004).
Rebel Never Gets Old (2004).

Issued as a hook for Bowie’s first world tour in nearly 15 years, Reality became something else by the late 2000s: Bowie’s Last Album. With Bowie seemingly in retirement, there was a fair bit of fan resentment and bewilderment about this. Reality was really going to be the end? This was his Abbey Road, his Avalon? A “thrusty” (Bowie’s official adjective for it) album with a few covers? It would be as if he’d left the stage with Lodger, another oft-unloved record with which Reality has some affinities.

His return in 2013 loosed Reality from this trap. Now you can consider the record on more favorable terms: as an album whose songs were built to be blasted on stage, whose compositions were written quickly and fairly loosely, its tracks assembled like an Ikea table. The album of an older working artist, of a man used to himself, at an armistice with himself; someone happy not to take himself seriously (hope you’re happy, too). It’s the work of a man pissed off at the world but trying to keep it together for his kid’s sake. Not Bowie’s last album, but his latest album.

In interviews, Bowie hammered home that Reality lacked the thematic arc of Heathen, that there was “no through line” (he said this a half-dozen times) in the album, that it was just a collection of songs and a few covers pulled from a “Pin Ups 2” list. Yet as he said in the album’s promotional video, “going back on my word is part and parcel of what I do for you. Part of my entertaining factor is lying to you.”

There’s far more thematic structure in Reality than Bowie let on. Like Man Who Sold the World, it’s full of extreme figures—Picasso as a cock of the walk; a gluttonous rock star vampire (see below); a Dick Cheney stand-in—and diminished ones: disappointed wives and desperate husbands; various lonelyhearts. There’s death and scars and a long, shadowy sub-sequence in which David Jones buries David Bowie, one more time. And Bowie pulled all of this off lightly, even flippantly, as if he would keep doing it forever.

Some jokes, too. Take the Tezuka-eyed anime figure on the album cover: a record called Reality with a video-game avatar as its marquee artist. Another was the TV ad Bowie made for Vittel water (he had no qualms about this—“basic” TV was a primary means of promotion left to him, as radio and MTV wouldn’t play his new songs). Here he’s a chic brownstone owner (playing on the press’ current image of him) sharing house with his discarded personae. He walks off into the Soho morning, out for a coffee or a Bikram yoga session, leaving the old freaks back at home. He still looks great; he’s in on the joke.

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For some time, Bowie had been planning a major world tour, his first since Sound + Vision in 1990, once his daughter was old enough to travel regularly. The Heathen/Low-dominated sets of the 2002 tour needed an overhaul: some more oldies, but also some new, uptempo material. The fast pace and smaller clubs of his “Five Boroughs” NYC shows in October 2002 invigorated him. By year’s end, he was “percolating” with new songs, making demos via his home setup at the time: a Korg Trinity and a Seventies ARP Odyssey, a Korg Pandora effects processor and a lifetime’s accumulation of guitars (“I was back at home with the baby and wife and doing daily things, and I started writing immediately,” he told the Miami Herald). He got Tony Visconti back in the studio in January 2003.

At the time, Visconti was often renting the small Studio B in Philip Glass’ Looking Glass Studios on Broadway, walking distance from Bowie’s Soho home. So Bowie could keep to a domestic schedule—Internet binging or neighborhood walks in the early morning, breakfast with his daughter, off to the studio around 10 or 11 AM and back home by 7 PM for dinner. He could try out something on a keyboard at home, play it in the studio a few hours later, take the file home and listen to it that night.

Bowie and Visconti demoed about seven tracks (top melody sketches and scratch keyboard, bass and guitars over a click track), then began some overdubs, mainly guitar, vocals and keyboards. “Inevitably we’d hardly redo anything,” Visconti recalled to Sound on Sound. “I always record things carefully in the first place because I know we’re not going to redo them, and so a lot of the demo parts ended up on the final version.” (Visconti said “the bulk” of Reality was recorded into Logic Audio, with the Looking Glass Studio B board mainly used for monitoring tracks.)

After a break in which Bowie wrote and demoed more songs, he assembled a small group for rhythm tracks (cutting eight tracks in about eight days). It was just Bowie and Visconti, drummer Sterling Campbell and bassist/guitarist Mark Plati, all cramped into Studio B, with its 12′ x 10′ isolation booth. While Bowie could have rented the more spacious Studio A, he preferred being boxed in to get “a real tight New York sound,” as Visconti called it (Visconti also said he could better judge bass-end tones in the smaller studio).

This was the end of Plati’s work with Bowie. In the late Nineties, Plati had positioned himself as Bowie’s new right-hand man, and once Bowie and Reeves Gabrels parted company in 1999, Plati was ready to move up. But he hadn’t banked on the return of Tony Visconti to the fold, and the collapse of Toy (Plati’s baby) meant Visconti had the dominant hand. A source familiar with most of the musicians at the time noted Visconti had been gunning for Plati for a while and that Bowie had enjoyed the rivalry, as it bred good creative energy (he was an old hand at this, pitting Earl Slick against Carlos Alomar, Eno against Alomar, Reeves Gabrels against Mike Garson, etc.)

For Reality, Visconti recorded all the bass parts at the demo stage, often leaving Plati to have to trace over his lines (and Bowie preferred Visconti’s original takes on “The Loneliest Guy,” “Days” and “Fall Dog Bombs the Moon”). Visconti had looked a bit askance at Plati’s use of the Line 6 Bass Pod (a preamp that could let the player “dial up” the sound of whichever bass amp and cabinet they wanted), preferring to direct-inject his “very souped up ’67 [Fender] Precision” into the console.

Plati left before the Reality tour to take a gig with Robbie Williams, which he later regretted. He’d been used to Bowie fans, who were so devoted to the music that they knew every player’s name and backstory; now he was just an anonymous face backing a Star.

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By February 2003, a good chunk of the record was cut, though Bowie and Visconti weren’t happy with the drum sound, ultimately driving up to Allaire Studios near Woodstock, where they’d cut Heathen, to play Campbell’s drum tracks over Allaire’s massive ATC SCM150 monitors, then mixing that reverbed sound into Logic Audio.

For lead guitars, they brought in Earl Slick (cranking out his lines through an “enormous” Marshall stack), David Torn (charged with providing “atmospheres” as on Heathen, though he also got some lead riffs, like “New Killer Star”) and Gerry Leonard (mainly incidental work and solo spots, like the “Spanish” guitar on “Pablo Picasso”). Bowie also was keen to get into the mix some old Supro guitars that he’d bought on eBay, including a 1957 Dual Tone retrofitted by Flip Scipio and another patched-up 12-string Supro (heard on “Never Get Old,” among other tracks). Bowie also played scads of Korg Trinity, retrieved his old Selmer baritone saxophone for a few tracks and tried his hand at harmonica again (not heard since “Never Let Me Down” unless I’m (likely) forgetting something).

By May, Bowie and Visconti had pasted together a record, mixing sounds from a wide palette. Mike Garson recorded both synth and piano parts (the latter in California, with Garson putting the finished pieces into a ProTools file). Bowie typically sang three lead vocals for each track—one right after the rhythm tracks were cut, one midway through the sessions and one towards the start of mixing. Visconti synced them up (he’d made sure Bowie had used the same mic, a Manley Gold, for all takes) so that he could make a neat stitching job for a last vocal, following a line Bowie had sung in February with one he’d sung in May. And Bowie was in strong voice—having finally given up cigarettes, he’d recovered at least five semitones.

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You gotta stay young, man, you can never be old.

Mott the Hoople, “All the Way From Memphis.”

Unlike every other great genre of American pop, rock is all about being young or (if you are poor Mick Jagger) pretending to be young.

James Miller.

Wouldn’t that be fun, to age disgracefully?

Bowie, to the Sydney Morning Herald, 2003.

In 2001, the New York Press editor John Strausbaugh issued a manifesto, Rock ’til You Drop, attacking “colostomy rock” (the book had a cover photo of a wizened, grotesque-looking Mick Jagger): “Rock should simply not be played by 55-year-old men with triple chins wearing bad wighats, pretending to still be excited about playing songs they wrote 30 or 35 years ago…its prime audience should not be middle-aged, balding, jelly-bellied dads…Rock ‘n’ roll is not family entertainment.” (Bowie got a few brickbats, with Strausbaugh labeling him a “self-serving, egomaniacal, 52-year-old creep [conflating] all of rock ‘n’ roll with his own way-past-prime career”).

This was a sharper-pitched (Strausbaugh’s book is full of lurid Hogarth-esque descriptions of sadly aging musicians) version of an old argument: can a youth music grow old with dignity? Should there be some sort of Logan’s Run scenario where rock stars, after they hit 35, agree to kill themselves to spare us the sight of their aging? Bowie had avoided some of this by staying thin, keeping his hair and simply not seeming to age that much (even Strausbaugh admitted Bowie still looked hale in his 50s). But his sheer perseverance rankled Strausbaugh and other critics. Didn’t he know it was over? Wasn’t it a bit embarrassing, all the Internet Bowiebanc Omikron drum’n’bass business?

“Never Get Old” is Bowie’s response (did he read the book? you never know). Fuck you: I am the aging letch you hate, and there’s nothing you can do about it. “It’s a rather silly song,” he told Kurt Orzeck. “It’s kind of [about] a petulant 56-year-old.” To the Sun, Bowie added that “there’s the image of a petulant rock singer sitting in a half-darkened room saying, ‘I’m not gonna get old.’ I thought it was a funny image and I had to write it before someone else my age did.”

After all, this sort of “get off the stage, old man” warfare was in great part intra-generational: it was late Baby Boomers attacking early Baby Boomers. “Today we’re a generation of angry old men,” Bowie told Der Stern. He had a three-year old daughter for whom Joe Strummer, Johnny Cash, Lady Miss Keir and Trent Reznor would all be one great jumble, a collective past that would be as easy to pare and remix as he’d done for his latest album. But playing an aging, vain Baby Boomer egomaniacal creep was too juicy a role not to take on.

Singing “Never Get Old” was part of a growing cheekiness, a lack of reverence for his legend. Bowie had become grand enough of a monument that he could scrawl on it. Around this time he cut a remake of “Changes” with Butterfly Boucher, where he sang “look out, you rock ‘n rollers—pretty soon you’re gonna get older!” with gusto and happy irony. He recut “Rebel Rebel” as an aging rocker still playing at youth, then had it mashed up into “Never Get Old” for a tawdry single that would have made the likes of Strausbaugh retch.

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“Never Get Old” is a bipolar song. The E major refrains are hectoring and bloated, with their set of whining guitars stuck in second gear. A grotesque rock star refuses to leave the table, instead filling his belly with more: cash, food, drugs, women (live, Bowie sang “never gonna be enough bullets!” while making a gun shape with his fingers: you’re never gonna be able to kill all of us). Underneath the latter half of the refrains is a grunting, moaning distorted bass figure: the gurgling stomach of the singer, or the factory work keeping his enterprise going.

He’s also feeding on his past. The winding verse melody is similar to that of “Karma Man,” while there’s a pun on old glories (“never gonna get Low“) and maybe even an Iggy Pop nod (“street of life” calls back to the “street of chance” of Pop/Bowie’s “Baby“). And not just his past. The last vocal tag, a soaring bit by Gail Ann Dorsey and Catherine Russell, mirrors the close of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

Yet the verses and pre-choruses have none of this cheek. They’re built on tentative shifts up and down, like a man struck with doubts on a stairway. The verse starts on G major (“better take care”), sharpens the chord (“I think I’d better go better”) and in a breath makes it natural again (“get a room better take”) then moves down to F major (“care of me”). The second time round’s a lower descent, to E minor (..”history”). The pre-chorus does the same moves with C major (C: “forever,” C#: “this feeling that we’re going to be,” C: “living until the,” B-flat: “end of time”), then in a classic “really, Bowie?” progression, there’s a jarring shift from Bb to G# (“head hangs low”) to E-flat (“all over”) to E major to clear the path for the chorus.

These qualified, shaky movements, paced by a rhythm guitar (Torn?) that mainly nags at its G string, underscores a lyric marked by regret and loneliness. A man locks himself up in his room (painted blue, blue electric blue?). He goes to the movies, like the mousy-haired girl of “Life on Mars?,” hoping that when the star turns around for his close-up, he’ll acknowledge the little man in the stalls. The moon floats along with its stolen light (its airy progress the little piano break). The refrain is a lie.

A while ago, someone wrote on the “Space Oddity” post, arguing with my choice of words. I’d written “when Bowie dies” and the commenter took me to task: “surely you meant if?” It’s a wonderful protest, and a true one. It seems wrong to write that Bowie will ever die. He can’t die, he won’t die: we just won’t let him.

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Recorded: (rhythm tracks, vocals) January-February 2003, (lead guitars, lead and backing vocals, overdubs) March-May 2003, Looking Glass Studios, New York. Released 16 September 2003 on Reality (ISO/Columbia COL 512555 2/ CK 90576, UK #3, US #29). A video for the song is included on the DualDisc version, one of the several supplemental editions of Reality, whose numbers also include the 2-CD version (with bonus tracks “Fly,” “Queen of the Tarts” and a remade “Rebel Rebel”), the “tour” version (which had a bonus DVD with the LP sequence performed live at Riverside Studio, plus “Waterloo Sunset” as a bonus (the Japanese CD also had the latter track)) and the SACD, which had Visconti’s Dolby 5.1 mixes for all tracks.

“Rebel Never Gets Old,” a mash-up assembled by Mark Vidler ca. March 2004, was issued as a single in the EU later that year (ISO-Columbia COL 674971) and also was available as an iTunes download.

Sources: Of particular help (to this and upcoming entries) was the marvelously detailed piece “Recording Reality” by Richard Buskin in the October 2003 issue of Sound on Sound. All technical details come from this article.

Top: Damiano, “Rainbow [Gathering] in Italia, 2002”; art for Reality (photos: Frank W. Ockenfels; design: Jonathan Barnbrook; illustrations: Rex Ray).