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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Joe, Meet Loaf

After I read the main obituaries in the Sunday Times, my eyes wander over to the smaller ones with the tiny, tiny type. If I were a perfect reading machine I would absorb all of these — the lives there summarized are often as interesting as the ones that get the big writeups, and since they are paid for by the word, every column inch is a testament to the fact that someone was beloved (or at least wealthy).

Usually I pick one or two that catch me eye. This week I was particularly struck by one headlined “DEAN—Joe.” Apparently these little ones aren’t available online, so here’s a picture:

I think this may be the perfect obituary. Warm and genial expression? Check. Age-appropriate but not horrifying picture? Check. Terse, to the point text that makes every word count and praises its subject without getting all flowery? Check. I’d like mine to be similar if possible.

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This Is Sumo

This week I’ve been listening to the album This Is Sumo, which dates from the halcyon days of 1998 but is completely new to me. I only learned about it while reading up on the career of Patrick Guy Sibley Huntrods — a.k.a. Pat Fish, a.k.a. The Jazz Butcher — following his recent departure from this mortal coil. In the late 90s he had decided to abandon the Jazz Butcher name and formed a new band with a bunch of younger musicians, which they named Sumosonic as (I assume) a pisstake on Semisonic (then topping the pops with “Closing Time”), no doubt to much intra-band hilarity.

Maybe I’m a sentimental fool, but I think this is great stuff. The sound is very much of its time, but the songwriting is top-drawer and, though Pat let others handle some of the vocals, his stamp is all over the thing.

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The song that most caught my ear was one called “God’s Green Earth,” in which Mr. Fish was already contemplating his mortality:

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What Balls

Last Friday night I was sitting outside at the Oakland Athletic Club watching My Golden State Warriors thump a hapless-looking Chicago Bulls when Andre Iguodala bent the fabric of spacetime and threw a basketball through it.

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In one sense this was just another play in another regular-season game in another long, long NBA season. In another sense it is the most stunning example you will ever see of split-second decision-making combined with physical dexterity and sheer chutzpah. As Willard said of Kurtz, “He just thought it up and did it. What balls.”

A Terrible Night for a Moondance

Today Godfather of the Blog Xian shared a great review of Van Morrison’s Latest Record Project Volume 1, which makes some of the same points I did but much more coherently and with much more context. By resharing it I feel like I am in some way closing that circle and fulfilling my duties, and I can go on to enjoy the rest of my Sunday. Which is scheduled to include, inshallah, Stephen Malkmus and the Traditional Techniques band at the Alberta Abbey in Portland. It could be a good day.

The Buddha of Brixton and Bromley

“One side of me is experimental and the other side of me wants to make something that people can get into and I don’t know fucking why! Why am I like this?”
—David Bowie

This week I’m on to The Buddha of Suburbia, which I never paid much attention to before. I wasn’t even aware it existed for at least a decade after it came out — it wasn’t released in the U.S. at the time, and this pre-Outside era marked a low point in my interest in what David was doing.

Chris O’Leary is a big advocate for B of S, and I guess I can see why — if you’d heard it in 1993 you might have given it the “Best Album Since Scary Monsters” label (especially if you weren’t as big a fan of Tin Machine II as me). But it seems more like a footnote to the great man’s catalog than the Great Lost Bowie Record.

I’m trying though. Unfamiliar Bowie albums are a dwindling resource. I even went so far as to watch the 1960 Kirk Douglas/Kim Novak movie from which Dave may have lifted the title for “Strangers When We Meet”:

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Two Deaths and a Rebirth

Today of course is the day we commemorate the death of David Bowie, now six years in the past. Although, if immortality is measured by continued presence in the culture, who is more immortal than he?

As it happens, a new song by the Jazz Butcher popped up in my Spotify feed today. This feels very apropos because it’s starting to seem that before kicking the bucket Mr. Fish made his own Blackstar — an album that he knew would be his last, although as far as I know he didn’t have cancer or anything; he just sensed that his time was nigh.

“Running on Fumes” is a particularly extreme example of the song that combines jaunty music with the bleakest of lyrics. From where I’m sitting it sounds like a poison kiss from beyond the grave:

I’m gonna throw a party and I’m gonna take requests
Send out invitations to the people I detest
They’ve been dying for some entertainment, you know the rest
Because we’re running on fumes, running on fumes, everybody’s running on fumes
Lemmy and Bowie and Prince all gone, everybody’s running on fumes

Make your own entertainment
That’s what you’re gonna have to do
Make your own entertainment
While you slowly come to understand
Your stupid dreams aren’t coming true

I mean, ouch. Though I guess the fact that it exists at all must be testament to the fact that on some level he felt like it was worth making.

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On a much, much happier note, through a fortuitous combination of circumstances my beloved and I were fortunate enough to be present for Klay Thompson’s return to the hardwood last night. I took a bunch of video, because of course I did, and I won’t get carried away with it but here’s my favorite: Klay warming up with Steph Curry, also wearing a #11 jersey.

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There was magic in the air. A little of it still lingers in my lungs — and hopefully that’s all. Over and out for now.

The Bowieest Day of the Year

David Bowie would have turned 75 today; or, to put it another way, this is the 75th anniversary of the birth of David Robert Jones in Brixton, London, England, Earth. (It is also the 87th anniversary of the birth of Elvis Aron Presley in Tupelo, Mississippi, and the 91st of the birth of Wulf Wolodia Grajonca in Berlin, Germany. I could go on but I won’t. This is a popular day to be born for some reason.)

Lately I’ve been reading the graphic novel Bowie, a sincere if sometimes clumsy account of David’s rise to fame. Early on there’s a scene where his manager Ken Pitt, with an episode of The Monkees playing in the background, convinces him that he needs to change his name to avoid confusion with Davy Jones. Just one problem with that: David R. Jones became David Bowie in 1965; the first episode ofThe Monkees was not broadcast until September 1966.

It is true that future Monkee David Thomas Jones had already made a name for himself as the Artful Dodger in a production of the musical Oliver! in London and then Broadway, as well as several appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. So, maybe that really was the reason. But I think it’s worth noting that Bob Dylan’s song “Ballad of a Thin Man” had appeared on his album Highway 61 Revisited, released in late August 1965. I can easily imagine young David hearing the words

Something’s happening, but you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?

And freaking right out. Who would want to be Mr. Jones after that?

Here’s Bob doing the song in 1966:

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I’ll bet David was at one of the shows on that tour. Even if he didn’t have the money, he would have found a way.

And that’s all the time we have for today. Just dropped in to say Happy Birthday to David and everybody else. Carry on.

Here Comes the Shaking Man

Over the next couple months I want to dive into the subject of David Bowie again — mostly because I have been ever-so-slowly making my way through Ashes to Ashes, the second and much larger of Chris O’Leary’s song-by-song guides, and have now arrived at the turning point that was the early Nineties.

At this point Bowie’s golden era was long in the past, but lately I find that his years in the wilderness — of which there were many — interest me more. The Imperial years (roughly the Seventies) gave us a dozen albums of untouchable genius. This is a known fact set in stone, and while I’m not saying I know everything there is to know about them, my opinions aren’t going to fundamentally change.

But there’s a lot of gray area once you get past Scary Monsters. Take for instance Let’s Dance — Bowie’s greatest commercial triumph, and also the major artistic compromise that sent him down the slippery slope to the tragic late Eighties. I’ve always admired his ability to just decide “I’m going to do a hit album now” and immediately make one that sells 10 million copies. But at the same time, much as I’m leery of invoking the hackneyed concept of soul-selling, history makes absolutely clear that once he started chasing hits he lost his way as an artist.

Ashes to Ashes got me to really sit down and listen to Tonight and Never Let Me Down in full for the first time (back in the day I was too squeamish to do more than dabble), and I was not wrong about them: They suck. It’s hard to say which is worse. Musically, Tonight has no redeeming qualities — even the hit single, “Blue Jean,” I find squalid and depressing. (I know some people like “Loving the Alien,” which I guess is the least painful of a sorry bunch.) But it is not as embarrassing as NMLD, whose painful-to-behold cover signals a truly grievous descent into schlock and bad taste. (There are so may rappers in the world. Even back then this was true. Why have Mickey Rourke rap? Why?)

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