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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Wishful Pricks

The sequencing of Outside was willfully haphazard. It wasn’t worth worrying about, Bowie and Eno said; in the CD era people would cherry-pick their favorite songs and create their own versions of the album. But occasionally, as in any random process, little eddies of apparent design crop up. One such moment is the pairing of the minimalist “Wishful Beginnings” with the maximalist, but somehow kindred, “We Prick You.”

Neither one is overtly connected to the album’s “narrative.” “Wishful” could be a sequel to “Strangers When We Meet,” chronicling the breakup’s aftermath:

I’m no longer your golden boy….
We had such
Wishful beginnings
But we lived
Unbearable lives
I’m sorry little girl
Sorry little girl
So so sorry little girl
The pain must feel like snow

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The spacious soundscape recalls — not for the first or last time in Bowie’s work — the Walker Brothers’ “The Electrician,” a lodestar of his for many years.

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Strangers and Architects

At Berkeley I took a student-run writing class where we all agreed to write stories using a set of characters that we had created together. Less than half the class actually did that; some people just changed the names in already-written pieces, while others ignored the premise altogether. I’m still a little pissed off 35 years later.

Outside is kind of like that: Some songs are directly linked to the “non-linear Gothic drama hyper-cycle” concept, some are tangentially linked, and some not at all. The latter include “Thru’ These Architects Eyes,” which is not only an awkward and terrible title, but has a misplaced apostrophe that pains my proofreader’s eye.

“TTAE” is one of those songs that I quite like when I hear it and never think of otherwise. Maybe it’s the title.

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With its references to famous architects Philip Johnson and Richard Rogers, this song is — dare I say it? — a little nerdy. And the music flirts with Trying a Little Too Hard to Be Funky (a recurring Bowie vice). But for the most part it works; I especially like the slinky keyboard line that introduces then undergirds the chorus.

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A Small Filthy Lesson

The first two songs recorded for Outside say a lot about where Bowie’s head was at at the time. One is an abstract, almost jazzy piece with a distinct Twin Peaks vibe; the other is a punishing industrial track that nonetheless was accessible enough to make the British Top 40.

“A Small Plot of Land” was a relic of the Leon sessions, and for whatever reason seemed to be a special favorite of David’s. Often performed smack-dab in the middle of his mid-90s live sets — complete with spoken-word intro and lengthy, atonal Reeves Gabrels solo — it came across as sort of a challenge to the audience. “Get through this,” it implies, “and we’ll see about maybe entertaining you for a while longer.”

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Listening to it again just now, it occurred to me that “ASPoL” could plausibly be an outtake from Blackstar, which may explain Bowie’s fondness for it — that extraterrestrial rebop was a sound he aspired to for a long time.

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David and Brian Take Us Outside

In 1993 David Bowie had married the model Iman Abdumajid. (Several songs on Black Tie White Noise were inspired by her and the blessed nuptials.) Among those in attendance was David’s old pal Brian Eno, and — legend has it — Bowie used the wedding sound system to play Eno some new music he’d been working on. Eno was intrigued, and so the partnership of the two titans was rekindled.

In March 1994 they went into the studio with a small group and started improvising all day long, with Bowie the bandleader and Eno the provocateur/irritant, creating characters for the musicians to play and applying “strategies designed to stop the thing from becoming over-coherent.” The intent was to do something truly different. “We don’t want to make another record of songs,” Eno said at the time. “There’s got to be a bigger landscape than that.”

As they stockpiled hours and hours of material, their ambition grew. At one point the project was going to be a 3-CD set of lengthy, formless suites — an idea that may or may not have been an artistic success, but was almost certainly commercial poison. If Bowie had been at the pinnacle of his career at the time — or if Bandcamp had existed then — it probably would have gone down that way, for good or ill. But he was without a record company and no one wanted the stuff, so it languished in the vaults, with a few bits and pieces repurposed for what eventually became the Outside album.

Thanks to some unknown bootlegger, we can get a glimpse of what this material was like through three 20-minute-plus excerpts:

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