You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving

August 7, 2009


You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving.
You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving (Toy, 2000).

The anxiety of influence: Bowie first met Pete Townshend when Bowie’s new band, The Lower Third, opened for The Who in Bournemouth on 4 March 1965. Townshend stopped in during the Third’s soundcheck and heard the band bash through a few new songs like “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” which sounded a bit familiar to him.

Afterward, Townshend came up to Bowie. One can only imagine with what glorious condescension Townshend delivered his opening line:”You’re trying to write like me!”

While Bowie and Townshend had started recording at the same time and even shared producers, there was a substantial artistic gap between the two, as there was with Bowie and many of his contemporaries. Some of it was simply a matter of age: a year or two’s difference determined rank as much as your accent once did. So in 1965 Lennon, at 25, and Dylan at 24 were the vanguards;  McCartney was 23; Jagger 22; Ray Davies 21; Townshend and Clapton were 20. Bowie was 18 and absolutely felt it.

It’s telling that when Bowie and Lennon both put out tribute “oldies” albums in the mid-’70s, Lennon’s LP was of songs he had loved as a kid, like “Be Bop a Lula,” while Bowie’s was of songs by his peers, like “I Can’t Explain” and “Anyway Anyhow Anywhere.” (Some of Bowie’s bottled resentment seeps out in later songs like “Changes” and “All the Young Dudes.”)

It’s a long way of saying that for his third single, Bowie is so completely in thrall to The Who that “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” is something of a pantomime Who performance. It’s hobbled in part because of its lame lyric and vocal, but mainly because the path from the chorus to the rave-up has a deep pitfall: the dire section that starts “sometimes I cry,” in which you can feel the energy dissipate despite the drummer flailing away.

The rave-up is welcome when it finally arrives but soon seems to hit the wall and then suddenly cuts off, as if the neighbors were complaining. The Lower Third tries to get noisy again towards the fadeout but just slinks off in defeat.

Released on 20 August 1965 as Davy Jones (Bowie’s first solo billing—the Lower Third weren’t happy), Parlophone 5315 (Early On).

(Bowie re-recorded “You’ve Got a Habit of Leaving” 35 years later for a failed LP Toy, and eventually released it as a b-side to “Slow Burn” in 2002. The new version is longer, far more elaborately produced, far more professionally played and it still sounds like a Who knock-off, only a knock-off of The Who ca. 1999. That said, Bowie sings it well and it does finally rock out at the end.)