Toy (Your Turn to Drive)

February 25, 2014

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Toy (Your Turn to Drive).

[see previous]

Around five in the morning on 15 August 2000, New York City received a new resident, Ms. Alexandria Zahra Jones. Her arrival happily preoccupied her father.

The rest of his band found some other occupations. Mark Plati, Earl Slick and Sterling Campbell worked on a solo album for former New Kid on the Block Joe McIntyre. And Plati kept listening to the rough mixes of the Toy sessions. The buzz of creation gone, he was hearing the tapes with a cooler head and came to believe something was missing from them.

Pete Keppler, who’d engineered the Toy sessions, recommended Plati see the Eels (with whom Keppler had worked), so Plati went to their 11 August show at the Bowery Ballroom. He was taken by the violinist Lisa Germano, who was playing with the band. Having gained notice in John Mellencamp’s touring band in the Eighties, she’d gone on to play for Sheryl Crow, Iggy Pop, the Smashing Pumpkins and U2, among dozens of others. “I knew I needed to have her play on Toy,” Plati recalled in a web journal entry. “Her vibe would be just perfect for us.” So he mentioned the prospect of Germano doing some overdubs to Bowie, who was intrigued once she sent over her solo CDs. In late September, Plati scheduled two days of sessions with Bowie and Germano at his apartment in the East Village.

Bowie had hardly listened to the Toy roughs since his daughter’s birth. When he went back to them, he also decided the songs needed more work, and he rethought the central idea of the project. His run of big-top nostalgia shows in June, culminating in the Glastonbury Festival, had been public events: a quick way of landing back at the top rung. But in Toy he wasn’t remaking “Space Oddity” and “Changes” in some sort of MTV Unplugged setting. He was singing mostly utter obscurities, songs he’d pretended hadn’t existed for decades.

Nor had he altered the songs much, in terms of lyric, chords or melody: the likes of “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” still displayed the unripe talent of their composer. He generally just slowed the tempos and sang most of the songs in an ashen baritone. He came off as a older man singing a juvenile’s songs. In a few cases, this was an inspired move. “Conversation Piece” has a new depth of loneliness when sung not by a self-absorbed young writer but by someone whose life hasn’t panned out. “Liza Jane” became a dirty old man’s song, “Baby Loves That Way” a lament by a humiliated fool whose age is unleavened by wisdom.

In lesser performances, though, he settled for following the traces of his former voice; he was genially haunting his old songs. Maybe that was the point of the project after all. As he was to be a father again, he would try to reconnect with a young man whom he could barely remember. Toy was a seance with himself.

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Germano turned up at Plati’s apartment with a small arsenal of eccentric instruments, including a recorder-flute, a down-tuned electric violin, a 1920s Gibson mandolin “and an old tiny tortoise-shell blue-green Hohner accordion with a strap so old and tired we had to beg it to stay together (assisted by duct tape),” Plati recalled. Bowie arrived elated to work (or perhaps just simply elated to be among adults again, after having been in baby-world for a few months). He sat on Plati’s couch, chain-smoked, played guitar and once even tried his hand at Germano’s violin “playing some cool drones, like a John Cale vibe.”*

The mood was loose and fun. Germano recalled to Dan LeRoy that Bowie got “genuinely excited when he came up with an idea and Mark and I were able to see it to fruition.” Among her overdubs was a whirling violin solo on “Baby Loves That Way.” She described as Bowie as being childlike—wide open to experiment, gleeful with what he was hearing. The three decided to cut more overdubs in the studio the following month with the full band. An effusive Bowie soon wrote in a web journal entry that “the [Toy] songs are so alive and full of color…It’s really hard to believe they were written so long ago.”

Yet this happy re-commitment to the project came with a substantial change in strategy. He’d decided he couldn’t just put out an album of re-recorded obscurities. In the BowieNet entry he said he’d “written a couple of brand new songs…in the style [I] may have written them in the ’60s.”

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It’s unclear when “Toy” was recorded. While possibly one of the original 13 tracks cut at Sear Sound, it makes far more sense coming after Bowie had recalibrated the album concept. If there were going to be some “new ’60s” songs to supplement his remade Pye and Deram songs, it seemed appropriate to have a title track. My guess is that “Toy” began around the time of the Germano/Bowie overdub session and likely was cut in the second round of full-band sessions at Looking Glass Studios in October. One tell is the presence of the Stylophone, which Bowie would use on other newly-written tracks (and it was at the Looking Glass sessions where the jazz trumpeter Cuong Vu overdubbed solos for “Liza Jane” and “Toy”).

Where “Hole in the Ground” felt like a song Bowie hadn’t bothered to finish since 1970, “Toy” was a song frozen in the process of creation. It’s one of the slightest of Bowie compositions: just a single extended refrain, consisting mainly of alternated four-beat ascending phrases, that’s bookended by a lengthy Mike Garson/Earl Slick dominated intro and a two-minute coda clouded with Vu’s trumpet solo.

There’s a soft mystery to the track: its waves of ghost vocals, the hypnotic arpeggio Garson plays, the way Vu seems to be in mourning. Its closest relative is “Untitled No. 1,” with which it shares the lack of a definitive lyric. Bowie’s lines, blurred in the mix and likely improvised at the mic, are just a mesh of sounds, coalescing around a set of “ay” rhymes: is he saying “die tonight” or “lie tonight” at the end? He could be addressing anyone: a spouse, a muse, a god or a child. If the latter, “Toy” answers another ode to parental anxiety, “Oh! You Pretty Things.” There the young were the homo superior, happy to displace us. In “Toy,” the generational shift is far less choice of a prospect for the young: your turn to drive, kid; hope you do better than us.

Including the track on Toy wouldn’t make the record any easier to sell. Its ultimate fate—being issued as an Internet-only bonus track, retitled “Your Turn to Drive,” and never collected on CD—was no injustice: it’s a song seemingly meant to exist on the margins. But there were other new songs emerging in the later Toy sessions that had more visible promise. [to be continued]

Recorded ca. 1-15 July 2000, Sear Sound?; Mark Plati’s apartment, ca. late September 2000?; ca. late October-early November 2000, Looking Glass Studios, NYC. First released as a download (“Your Turn to Drive”) in September 2003 to those who pre-ordered Reality on-line from HMV, and later as an iTunes-only download. The only apparent difference between the leaked Toy mix and the official release is that the latter has a slightly longer fadeout.

* Bowie’s only reported attempt to play a violin. He also once played viola on stage with Cale in 1979 (see “Cale Demos“).

Top: Charles Schulz, excerpt from one of the final Peanuts Sunday strips, 2 January 2000 (Schulz died a month later); new father and Lisa Germano playing at Mark Plati’s apartment, NYC, late September 2000 (from Plati’s now-defunct web journal); Frank Tafun, “Cuong Vu,” ca. 2000 (JazzTimes).