I’d like to thank Warsaw’s Agata Pyzik for her generous help on this entry.
Your lightdarkblue morning light, O city.
…You run through the streets all night,
sensational hi-fi is still blasting through the housing blocks,
and the city cowers, it pastes its glass buildings
onto the future, but it’s getting bogged down, sinking, vanishing
into the mud…
Andrzej Sosnowski, “Warszawa” (collected in Lodgings, 1997).
Before he recorded “Warszawa,” Bowie had been in the city once in his life, for a few hours. He had gone through Poland in May 1973, traveling from Moscow to West Berlin, but he hadn’t left the train (with good reason: at some point in Poland an overzealous train official, demanding his papers, had tried to push into Bowie’s compartment). In April 1976, Bowie and Iggy Pop took a train from Zurich to Moscow, again via Poland. As per Paul Trynka’s bio of Iggy Pop: They saw towns still pockmarked with bullet holes and a landscape scarred by unrepaired bomb craters; drawing alongside a goods train in Warsaw, they witnessed a worker unloading coal piece by piece in the gray, freezing sleet.
In Warsaw, the train was kept for a few hours at Dworzec Gdański (Gdansk Railway Station), so Bowie went for a walk in Warsaw’s Żoliborz district, in what was then called Plac Komuny Paryskiej (Paris Commune Square) (it’s since been rechristened its original name, Plac Wilsona). Years later, Bowie’s Polish fans would recount his walk, almost step by step. Bowie stopped at a record shop and bought a few LPs by the folk song and dance ensemble Śląsk, one of which featured Stanisław Hadyna’s composition “Helokanie.”
Of these scant impressions Bowie made a world, or at least a city. He named the six-minute-plus brooding hymn that opens Low‘s “night” side not after Moscow, a city of which he’d had some experience, nor Berlin, his future home, but Warsaw, a city that he had only glimpsed. Maybe Warsaw was just an emptier canvas, or perhaps something about the city resonated Bowie during his brief walk. He had just left Los Angeles, a city of professional dreams; he had grown up in a London experiencing a brief second childhood; he had made his art out of fabrications—imaginary rock singers, gleefully violent comic book dystopias. Warsaw had little of this. What Warsaw had was the iron residue of history: it was nearly leveled during the war, a great part of its population murdered—in death camps, in failed uprisings, in reprisals. For Bowie, it was a fallen city, a conquered city, a city left to the spies and the winter.
One of Italo Calvino’s invisible cities is Eusapia, “whose inhabitants have constructed an identical copy of their city, underground,” where they bring all their corpses “to continue their former activities.” Slowly, imperceptibly, the dead begin to alter their surroundings, thus forcing the living to continually change their own city so as to retain the mirror image. They say that this has not just now begun to happen: actually it was the dead who built the upper Eusapia, in the image of their city. They say that in the twin cities there is no longer any way of knowing who is alive and who is dead.
The song that Bowie named after Warsaw begins with a slow tolling, the sound of a funeral bell as played by a child at a piano.
Brian Eno often was working alone in the last weeks of the Low sessions at Château d’Hérouville. Bowie had gone to Paris for a court case (he was breaking with his manager). Before he left, he asked Eno to write a slow piece, something with a “very emotive, almost religious feel to it.”
Eno heard Tony Visconti’s four-year-old son on the studio piano, pressing three consecutive white keys: A, B and C. He came in the room, sat down next to the boy at the piano, and played along with him, finishing the melody. This would become the main “Warszawa” theme, and Eno entwined it into a larger structure, one (again) formed through deliberate randomness.
As with “Art Decade,” Eno structured the piece to a series of metronomic clicks (in this case 430), each click numbered on another track, so that a chord change or a new bassline would be pegged to a random number. This was meant to free Eno from compositional crutches, from the routine of bar strictures and beats. And as with “Art Decade,” despite this deliberate randomness, “Warszawa”‘s layout is easily discernible and even rather traditional. It’s in four distinct sections (in generally 4/4 time): an opening 24-bar “overture” (0:00 to 1:17), a 48-bar “theme” (1:17 to 3:46), a 32-bar “chorus” (Bowie’s vocal, 3:47 to 5:25) and finally a 16-bar repeat of the theme.
The opening, in A major, begins with 8 bars of tolling piano (four consecutive A notes on the keyboard played together), then moves to D minor upon the appearance of the first fragmented melody, a progression that stalls on an E chord. After another round of A octaves, the melody started by Visconti’s son appears—A, B, C# (each played in four octaves). Again, there’s no progression after a certain point: the music freezes, staying on a C chord until the theme section begins.
The piece changes key to F-sharp major, and the three-note pattern returns; four bars in, with a move to D# minor, a second, even more gorgeous melody appears, reaching a peak with an A# chord. After a repeat, there’s a third sparkling little melody, a stepwise upward movement that begins on B. The simplicity, the cleanness of the three melodic lines is reminiscent of Satie’s first Gymnopédie; the slow coagulation of sound echoes the opening of Shostakovich’s Eleventh.
The instruments were primarily the small group of synthesizers that Bowie and Eno had brought to the sessions—Eno’s EMS and Minimoog, Bowie’s Chamberlin—along with the studio’s small collection of ARPs (and possibly some treated guitar). Both synthesizers and piano play the continually-tolling A or C octaves underneath much of the piece; the Chamberlin doubles for a wind section.
The theme section ends, the key returns to A major, there’s four bars of musings by a synthetic cello, and then the voices appear.
Bowie returned to the studio from Paris drained and irritable and decided to move operations to Berlin. Yet when he heard Eno’s music, he came up with a lyric in about ten minutes, and recorded it almost as quickly. He played Visconti what the latter recalled as a “Balkan boys choir record” (very likely the Śląsk records Bowie that had picked up in Warsaw). Bowie said he wanted to achieve a similar sound for his vocals, some of which echo the “helo helo” chorus of “Helokanie.”
Sula vie dilejo
Solo vie milejo
Cheli venco deho (x2)
Cheli venco raero
It seems like a newly-crafted dialect of Esperanto. Bowie’s lines aren’t nonsense words he dashed out: they’re a series of phonetics, with a rich internal rhyme scheme and a common rhythmic base (six syllables for each phrase except “malio,” which gets three, though Bowie varies the phrasing of his vocal—he sings the first “deho” in two notes, the second with a downward run of four notes). The lines are easy to sing, as the language seems to be a fusion of the most melodious Romance tongues—Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese—with a flavor of Slavic in it. (And the “East” appears as well, with the chanted “om” in the bass section).
And it’s not the hermetic, broken language of “Subterraneans.” There’s a richness, a warmth to the words: the long vowels, the easy lift of the mild consonants. It’s as though it was the lost language of a common Europe, some alternate blessed continent that escaped the wars. A tone poem from the world that wasn’t. (It’s fitting that “Warszawa”‘s partial inspiration was a choir named after a country that no longer exists: Silesia, first absorbed by Prussia in the 18th Century, then severed and distributed to Poland and Czechoslovakia after WWII.)
As the music of “Warszawa” is the work of a synthetic orchestra, a handful of machines standing in for what would have been dozens of instruments, its vocals are a choir of one man’s manipulated voice. Bowie sings the first lines in his regular baritone. Then, beginning with “cheli venco” Bowie sang onto a tape that Visconti had slowed down two semitones: played back at normal speed, Bowie’s voice had become a child’s. The final lines seem sung by a dervish.
Bowie named “Warszawa” well after he and Eno had made it: he hadn’t set out to capture the city in a song. If Low‘s A side was a series of brief communiques from a shattered man, its second side was a set of quiet interior landscapes, a psychic desolation embodied in an imaginary Eastern Europe. Berlin was the setpiece, but Warsaw, the gloomy city Bowie had walked through one lost afternoon, was its heart. The song is a broken, brooding man reincarnated in a city.
The creative peak of Low, “Warszawa” is one of Bowie’s most sublime works, and its influence would echo for years to come. Ian Curtis was so obsessed with the song that he named his punk group after it. Scott Walker’s “The Electrician” seems inspired by “Warszawa”‘s tolling opening (most of Walker’s contributions to Nite Flights, a 1978 Walker Brothers record, are reactions to Low and “Heroes”).
And how was it heard in Warsaw itself? The Polish punk rock groups of the late ’70s and early ’80s tended to draw on other influences than Bowie. Yet it was a touchstone for the poet Andrzej Sosnowski, who would use “Warszawa” as a hidden reference in his work. Sosnowski’s Warszawa “is always filtered through Bowie’s Warszawa, meaning there’s a mythical, concrete, bleak Warszawa that Bowie had in mind, that only partially is the real Warsaw,” the writer Agata Pyzik told me. “The image that has been prolonged in Western minds is very much like this, but you may also say that Bowie immortalized a certain image of the city, his inner Warsaw. I thought it always one of the most solemn, uncanny Bowie songs, and a proper homage to my city, which is until this day quite sinister.”
Recorded at Château d’Hérouville in September 1976 and Hansa, Berlin, September-October 1976. It was the standard opener of the 1978 tour (a version from Philadelphia is on Stage, while the clip linked above is from a Tokyo concert on 12 December 1978, filmed for the “Young Music Show”) and for some of the Heathen tour, 2002. Used by Philip Glass for the “Low” Symphony, 1992-93.
From top: unknown photog., “Construction of the Palace of Culture and Science,” Warsaw, ca. 1955; Nancy JM Blake, “Warsaw, 1976”; “Anty Rama,” “Metro Plac Wilsona, Zoliborz, Warszawa,” 2009; Edek Giejgo, “Warszawa- Ulica Swietojanska 1976.”