Back on the Bowie Train

On the Bowie front, I’m done with Outside and bound for Earthling. But along the way I was compelled to revisit that awkward period when David had allied himself with Nine Inch Nails, looking for a little cachet with The Kids. I was at one of the shows they did together in 1995, and my opinion then was that Trent Reznor is a medium talent at best who compensates for his lack of range with vulgar histrionics.

Watching the footage didn’t change that opinion. Bowie manages to maintain his dignity beside Trent’s flailing, but only just. Was it was worth it? NIN did bring quite a few young folks into the shows, but many of them left when Bowie came on. The two bands did a few songs together during the changeover and their “Scary Monsters” is not half bad, but on the whole this footnote to Bowie history is one I’d prefer to forget. (Trent’s a grownup now, and a film composer of some renown. Hopefully he’s mellowed out a bit.)

Looking for music from this period I came across a show from later in the tour, post-NIN, that was much better than I expected. By this point Bowie had grown weary of tepid responses from audiences unfamiliar with the new songs, and started mixing in more classics. And while I salute and admire his decision to challenge himself and his fans with fresh material, I don’t at all mind hearing this band tackle “Diamond Dogs” or “Moonage Daydream.”

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They also do nice versions of “Breaking Glass” and “Lust for Life,” though in the process inadvertently reveal them to be more or less the same song. “Heroes,” on the other hand, fares poorly. Reeves Gabrels should not have been allowed within 100 miles of this song; his compulsive wanking makes a mockery of Robert Fripp’s cerebral elegance. All these years later, Gabrels’ long tenure in the band continues to puzzle me; it may have something to do with personal loyalty stemming from his having helped DB get sober.

Anyway, this show has a happy ending: any bad taste in the mouth is erased by a winning run through “All the Young Dudes,” and we’re ready for whatever’s next.

A Few Words from Nick Cave

A while ago I subscribed to Nick Cave’s “Red Hand Files,” where he answers questions from fans when the mood strikes him. The latest one is so good that I thought I’d share it here. I don’t think Nick would mind; this is the kind of message that begs to be promulgated.

Following the last few years I’m feeling empty and more cynical than ever. I’m losing faith in other people, and I’m scared to pass these feelings to my little son. Do you still believe in Us (human beings)?
—Valerio

Dear Valerio,

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You are right to be worried about your growing feelings of cynicism and you need to take action to protect yourself and those around you, especially your child. Cynicism is not a neutral position — and although it asks almost nothing of us, it is highly infectious and unbelievably destructive. In my view, it is the most common and easy of evils.

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I know this because much of my early life was spent holding the world and the people in it in contempt. It was a position both seductive and indulgent. The truth is, I was young and had no idea what was coming down the line. I lacked the knowledge, the foresight, the self-awareness. I just didn’t know. It took a devastation to teach me the preciousness of life and the essential goodness of people. It took a devastation to reveal the precariousness of the world, of its very soul, to understand that it was crying out for help. It took a devastation to understand the idea of mortal value, and it took a devastation to find hope.

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Unlike cynicism, hopefulness is hard-earned, makes demands upon us, and can often feel like the most indefensible and lonely place on Earth. Hopefulness is not a neutral position either. It is adversarial. It is the warrior emotion that can lay waste to cynicism. Each redemptive or loving act, as small as you like, Valerio, such as reading to your little boy, or showing him a thing you love, or singing him a song, or putting on his shoes, keeps the devil down in the hole. It says the world and its inhabitants have value and are worth defending. It says the world is worth believing in. In time, we come to find that it is so.

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Love, Nick

Bauhaus Is Undead

This summer, after a long delay, Bauhaus is scheduled to embark on their first tour in Quite a Few Years. Kate and I will catch them in Seattle. Am I excited? Well… the boys are getting pretty long in the tooth now. In my most recent memory of Peter Murphy he is wearing reading glasses, conjuring bat sounds from his phone at the end of “Bela Lugosi’s Dead”; this was when he toured to celebrate the band’s 35th anniversary with three younger musicians who were perfectly fine but definitely Not Bauhaus.

Given the simmering intra-band hostility that has obtained for some decades now, there is every reason to suspect that this reunion is motivated mostly, if not entirely, by filthy lucre. So I am keeping my expectations low. But at some level it’s not even about the performance — it’s about spending time with these guys who, in one configuration or another, have been a big part of my life for almost 40 years now.

In an encouraging sign, they recently released their first new song since 2008. Though “song” might not be the right word for it. According to the band,

“Drink the New Wine” was recorded last year during lockdown with the four members sharing audio files. The track employs the Surrealists’ “Exquisite Corpse” device whereby each artist adds to the piece without seeing what the others have done. Bauhaus have used this technique in the past to great effect. The title refers to the very first Cadavre exquis’ drawing rendered by André Breton, Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Prévert and Yves Tanguy which included words which when strung together made up the sentence, “Le cadavre exquis boiara le vin nouveau” (“The exquisite corpse will drink the new wine”). For the recording, the four musicians each had one minute and eight tracks at their disposal plus a shared sixty seconds plus four tracks for a composite at the end.

Is this something to rival their best work? Don’t be silly. It’s a trifle, it’s a goof, it’s a prank. But for whatever reason and for however long, it’s good to have them back.

Last Notes on “Outside”

Because I can’t help myself I turned my opinions about Outside into a playlist, using the latest mixes from the Brilliant Adventure box set. At 12 tracks and 48 minutes, it’s a bit more digestible than the original album.

Also, this morning I happened to be reading a Bowie radio interview from 1972. He’s talking about Ziggy Stardust, but what he says could just as easily be applied to Outside.

It originally started as a concept album, but it kind of got broken up because I found other songs I wanted to put in the album which wouldn’t have fitted into the story… so at the moment its a little fractured and a little fragmented… I’m just lighting a cigarette… so anyway what you have there on that album when it does finally come out is a story which doesn’t really take place… I wrote it in such a way that I just dropped the numbers into the album in any order that they cropped up. It depends in which state you listen to it in. The times that I’ve listened to it – I’ve had a number of meanings out of the album… but I always do. Once I’ve written an album – my interpretations of the numbers in that album are totally different afterwards than the time that I wrote them and I find that I learn a lot from my own albums about me.

Apparently this is what he did, over and over and over. I wonder, by the time he finished Blackstar, did he finally really understand himself? One certainly hopes so.

An Audience with the Jazz Butcher’s Ghost — Part 2

On to the B side.

1. The Highest in the Land

This is the most mysterious song on the album. It appears to be about a monk in, say, the 13th century? There are references to Genghis Khan, the Great Wall of China, and the Boo Yang Shang, which may or may not be a real thing; Google is no help here. One day, I’m sure, all will become clear. For now I’m quite content with the mystery.

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One thing I can tell you for sure is that “Black Raoul” was the Jazz Butcher’s cat, who was celebrated in this earlier song:

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An Audience with the Jazz Butcher’s Ghost — Part 1

It’s rare anymore that I listen to an album all the way through, especially a new one. At most I might sit through it once before throwing it into a playlist of recent stuff, which I’ll then listen to on shuffle as a concession to my short and ever-shrinking attention span.

But I have listened to The Highest in the Land — the posthumous final release by the Jazz Butcher — almost every day since it came out earlier this month. I don’t think I’m just being sentimental; I think it’s really that good. So I thought I’d pay tribute to its creator, the late Patrick Guy Sibley Huntrods, a.k.a. Pat Fish, by going through it in two entries, roughly corresponding to what would be two sides of an LP.

1. Melanie Hargreaves’ Father’s Jaguar

In the leadup to this album’s release I was excited but also worried. The two singles were jaunty numbers with bleak, cutting lyrics — the ruminations of a man who’s reached the end of his life without feeling like he has much to show for it. Money, or the lack thereof, was a recurring theme; “time’s running out, the money’s running out,” said one; “nothing in the bank/nothing in the tank,” went another.

I wondered if the album as a whole would be equally dark, and maybe not as catchy. And hey, a man facing the abyss has a right to his feelings. The obvious point of reference is Blackstar, a work I admire but don’t find myself listening to very often.

But my concerns were allayed within the first 30 seconds of the first song. “Melanie Hargreaves’ Father’s Jaguar” is warm and jazzy, nostalgic and funny, beautiful and bitterweet. It’s pretty close to a perfect song.

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Hallo Spaceboy, Goodbye Oxford Town

The world at large has mostly forgotten about Outside. For most people, including a lot of younger Bowie fans, the discography pretty much jumps from Let’s Dance to Blackstar.1If they know anything from the mid-90s it’s likely to be “Hallo Spaceboy,” but unfortunately the version most circulated is the Pet Shop Boys remix, which is… well, let’s be polite here. I, personally, hate it. I think it eviscerates and needlessly discofies a pretty good song. But then I’ve never seen the point of anything the Pet Shop Boys did, so maybe it’s just me.

The original track is, in the parlance of the times, a banger. “I adore that track,” said Bowie. “In my mind, it was like Jim Morrison meets industrial. When I heard it back, I thought, ‘Fuck me. It’s like metal Doors.’”

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When he agreed to let PSB remix the song, he didn’t know that they were going to steal it from him. Nor did he know they would splice in bits of “Space Oddity,” which annoyed him.2But it was a hit, and he didn’t exactly disown it — as it climbed the charts he agreed to do several TV appearances where his omnipresent cool was severely tested by having two insufferable twerps behind him.3

Later he had regrets. Says Chris O’Leary,

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Control or Deranged?

You don’t really need both “No Control” and “I’m Deranged” on the album, as they pretty much cover the same territory. I tend to favor “No Control,” which is sleeker and sexier:

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Brian Eno agreed with me, calling “I’m Deranged” “a poorly organized song with no meaningful structure,” adding, “It goes something like ABBBBBBBBCBBBBBBB but the hook is A. I’ve had relationships like that, where the bit you liked never happens again.”

But David Lynch liked “Deranged,” which comes to life when paired with Lynch’s hypnotically minimal visuals:

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In fact, playing that right now in another window, I’m changing my mind in real time. Maybe we lose “No Control” instead? Maybe we keep both, put one at the beginning and one at the end? Or even put them back-to-back, lean into the repetition. One or both would need to be edited, though; or maybe they could be combined somehow. There are a lot of options. When is the release date for this thing, anyway?

Outside the Motel

Speaking of “The Electrician,” it is also most definitely an influence on “The Motel,” which many people consider one of the best songs on Outside — including David Bowie, who continued to perform it all the way through his final tour in 2003–04. (The only other song from the album similarly honored was “Hallo Spaceboy.”)

I’ve never been quite so crazy about it. It’s atmospheric, to be sure; but it’s too long, and I’m not sure about the grandiose turn it takes in the last couple minutes. I’m not too sure about this video, either, but maybe you’ll know what to make of it.

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According to Chris O’Leary “The Motel” was recorded around the same time as the title track, which for me is the most frustrating song on the album. I’m pretty sure there’s a great composition in there — it has sweep, it has melody, it has drama — but the production is awful: tinny and trebly and littered with wince-inducing skronk sounds. I mean, am I wrong?

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