Category Archives: david bowie

re-examining Song for bob dylan by david bowie

I’ve always liked this song, which appears on Bowie’s 1972 album Hunky Dory, but never fully understood it. Recently I’ve given it some further thought and music forum discussion. Here are the lyrics:

Hear this Robert Zimmerman
I wrote a song for you
About a strange young man called Dylan
With a voice like sand and glue
His words in truthful vengeance
Could pin us to the floor
Brought a few more people on
Put the fear in a whole lot more

Ah, Here she comes
Here she comes
Here she comes again
The same old painted lady
From the brow of a superbrain
She’ll scratch this world to pieces
As she comes on like a friend
But a couple of songs
From your old scrapbook
Could send her home again

You gave your heart to every bedsit room
At least a picture on my wall
And you sat behind a million pair of eyes
And told them why they saw
Then we lost your train of thought
The paintings are all your own
While troubles are rising
We’d rather be scared
Together than alone

Ah, Here she comes …

Now hear this Robert Zimmerman
Though I don’t suppose we’ll meet
Ask your good friend Dylan
If he’d gaze a while down the old street
Tell him we’ve lost his poems
So they’re writing on the walls
Give us back our unity
Give us back our family
You’re every nation’s refugee
Don’t leave us with their sanity

Ah, Here she comes …

In a full-page advertisement for Hunky Dory at the time, Bowie offered some handwritten notes on the songs, and for this one he wrote “This is how some see B.D.” – perhaps distancing himself a little from the song.

I am a big Dylan fan and for me the song represents a kind of interaction between two heroes, albeit one-sided. The phrase “a voice like sand and glue” seems to me a neat summary of how some hear B.D. and the ability to get past that into the beauty of his songs and performances is a kind of shared secret among Dylan fans.

I also like Bowie’s vocal performance which captures something of Dylan’s nasal, scratchy voice but without descending into full-blown parody.

That said, there have always been things that puzzled me. Who is the “painted lady” and why does she “come on like a friend?” Since this is the chorus, it is emphatic, but I didn’t have a clue what it was about. And why do we not want the “sanity” of “every nation’s refugee” in the last verse?

An aside on critiquing Bowie’s work

As an aside, its worth noting that although Bowie has attracted reams of prose about his work, very little of it examines such puzzles. In general, pop lyrics are not treated very seriously, and if a song does not quite make sense, most of us just shrug if we even think of it at all.

Bowie himself used a cut-up technique for some of his work, in which words are rearranged to make new texts, and you might reasonably conclude that that the resulting output is unlikely to make sense in a conventional manner.

Despite the above, it seems to me that Bowie took great care over his lyrics and I am constantly finding new shades of meaning in his work. He also loved word play, as noted by his friend Brian Eno after Bowie’s death:

“I received an email from him seven days ago. It was as funny as always, and as surreal, looping through word games and allusions and all the usual stuff we did. It ended with this sentence: ‘Thank you for our good times, brian. they will never rot’. And it was signed ‘Dawn’.

"I realise now he was saying goodbye."

I do believe therefore that the lyrics deserve more attention than they usually receive, even though it means digging into Bowie’s interests in the arcane and occult, for example, which can be both demanding and uncomfortable.

Two writers deserve a shout-out here for doing a lot of this spadework. One is Nicholas Pegg, author of a book called the Complete David Bowie (now being revised) which is full of excellent research.

The other is Chris O’Leary, whose song-by-song site Pushing Ahead of the Dame and associated books are also thoughtful and full of insight.

Song for Bob Dylan

Back on point: what is this song about? It is part tribute and part open letter to Dylan, the central thought being that the man who once effortlessly created “words of truthful vengeance” has gone off in a different direction – and we need him back.

Bowie I suspect knew this to be a rather narrow view, hence his note “this is how some see B.D.” allows for other perspectives.

Dylan began his career as a folk singer, with songs of “protest” that spoke out against injustice, racism and war. He went electric in 1965, escaping the “protest singer” box but not without backlash. Then in 1966 he had a motorcycle accident and went into a kind of retreat, emerging in 1967 with gentler-sounding albums like John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline, more country than folk or rock. Dylan’s ill-received 1970 album Self Portrait used his own child-like painting of himself on the cover; “your paintings are all your own.”

In 1971 then, when Bowie was writing Hunky Dory, Dylan seemed to have lost all interest in reforming the world as well as settling for a less energetic style of performance, losing it seemed the incandescent power he achieved on albums like Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde.

The stage is set for Bowie’s song. The first verse is straightforward, setting the scene; but then we get the painted lady. Who is she?

A “painted lady” is slang for a prostitute; but as Pegg observes, this is also a reference to Athena, the goddess of war (among other things) in Greek mythology. The 5th century BC Greek poet Pindar writes:

"from the cleft summit of her father’s brow Athene sprang aloft, and pealed the broad sky her clarion cry of war"

There are also other references in Greek mythology to Athena being born from the forehead of Zeus and emerging fully-clothed.

Athena, in other words, was born from the brow of Zeus, god of thunder and ruler of the Olympian Gods, the “brow of the superbrain.”

In this context Athena seems to represent mankind’s sad tendency to be seduced (“painted lady”) by war and to “scratch this world to pieces”; Bowie appeals to Dylan to “send her home” by returning to his potent songs of protest.

Bowie is always inclined to the apocalyptic and the idea that “troubles are rising” and the world being “scratched to pieces” is nothing strange to him.

Bowie plays with identity in the last verse, addressing Robert Zimmerman, Dylan’s proper name, and asking him to bring back the Dylan persona. Bowie knew all about personae, “David Bowie” being in some ways a creation of David Robert Jones, his own proper name.

What about the final couplet:

You’re every nation’s refugee
Don’t leave us with their sanity

Dylan may not be a refugee as such, but is on the side of the refugees, that much makes sense. But where does sanity come in?

Bowie’s view of sanity may not tally with our own. His family had a history of madness, his brother was in an asylum, and in his earlier song All the Madmen he explored the idea that society’s division between sane and insane may be arbitrary. “I’d rather say here, with all the madmen, I’m quite content they’re just as sane as me”.

Sanity then is not necessarily better than insanity; but the couplet is still odd. One suggestion I’ve heard is that “their” could refer to the nations, not the refugees.

I’ve found three performances of Song for Bob Dylan, one on Hunky Dory, one a rehearsal for a John Peel session where it is sung by Bowie’s friend George Underwood, and one from a 1972 live performance. In all three cases the word “their” is not clearly articulated. It could be “our sanity” or even “insanity”. Printed lyrics are not always correct. If it is “our sanity” it might mean, don’t leave us with the sanity that drives us to war.

Final thoughts

Song for Bob Dylan is a good song but not wholly satisfactory. Dylan stopped being a protest singer way back in 1964 or thereabouts and there is an uncomfortable sense that Bowie is inviting another artist to regress; perhaps this is what made him hesitant about the song in his notes.

I still like the song though. I can’t think of any better songs about Bob Dylan.

Bowie’s sublime blackstar: why you should buy the vinyl

I was broken-hearted when David Bowie died in January; but grateful that he left us with one of his finest works, the album called Blackstar or possibly just ★.

I had pre-ordered the CD but soon realised that I would have to get the vinyl. The cover design is different. The CD has a black star on a white background.

blackstar-cd

The vinyl on the other hand has a black cover with a cut-out opening onto the black vinyl inside.

blackstar-vinyl

The cutout hole is like a wound, no coincidence. The fragmented star symbols below spell Bowie. Great work from designer Jonathan Barnbrook.

As a piece of art it is beautiful and powerful, as an album cover it is highly impractical. The cutout star shape is easily bent when you shelve the record, and the transparent plastic inner sleeve is not ideal for protecting the vinyl.

I have even heard it suggested that this is deliberate, the fragility of the package echoing the fragility of life.

In addition there have been quality control issues. Some reissues have a horrible soft PVC inner sleeve that clings to the vinyl and seems to damage it, causing swooshing noises. Others are just rather noisy. You are doing well to get one that plays perfectly on both sides.

I am on my second copy and it is not perfect, but what I found most surprising was how much better it sounds than the CD.

Play Lazarus: the vocals are more real, the bass more dramatic, the wind instruments more sonorous and eerie.

I am curious about such things, and made a 24/96 digital copy of the track. It still sounds better than the CD, though something is lost in the copy. One reason – probably the main reason – is that the CD is “brickwalled”, that is, compressed for maximum loudness at the expense of dynamic range. Here is the view of the Lazarus track on CD in Adobe’s Audition CC:

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And here is the vinyl:

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That CD waveform is tragic; all the wide dynamic range of which CD is capable wasted for no good reason.

The vinyl is better in part for technical reasons; you cannot max out vinyl in the same way.

It is also intriguing to see frequencies above 30K in the vinyl (not that you can hear them).

Still, the bottom line is that it does sound better, especially if you hear the vinyl directly.

Recommended, despite the fragility and imperfection of the medium.

David Bowie, star man

In January 1972 I started at a new school. I had enjoyed pop music on the radio but it was here that I gradually became aware of things called albums, records with other-worldly sleeves and amazing propulsive music. I wanted them.

It look a while to get a record player of my own so I started with cassettes – taping everything I could find.

In April 1972 a single was released, Starman by David Bowie. It was catchy, it was extraterrestial, it was about listening to the radio at night (just like I used to do), it was about letting the children boogie, I loved it.

Moving on to the Ziggy Stardust album, Bowie became special to me. Looking back I am sure it was because I felt a bit of a misfit and Bowie’s music and image was about acceptance and celebration of oddness, as well as exploring sexuality in ways that were appealing and mysterious to innocent young things like myself.

I kept the faith through Bowie’s ch-ch-changes, Ziggy Stardust’s retirement, the fractured world of Diamond Dogs, the strangely downbeat David Live, the funk of Young Americans, train noises and Earl Slick’s frantic guitar on Station to Station, sombre electronica on Low, and then the unforgettable “Heroes”, love in the shadow of the Berlin wall.

Bowie had his difficult middle period for sure, but was always interesting. He was an actor as much as a musician and one of the acts he performed was himself; with Bowie the difference blurs.

His work shows a deep interest in what it means to be human; he’s content that the madmen “are just as sane as me” (with all the ambiguity that implies), his writing on outer space is also about inner space because if you imagine yourself “out there” you have nothing but yourself for company.

Bowie had huge artistic courage. I much regret not seeing his 1995 “Outside” tour when apparently some audience members walked out because he focused on his dark new material and not greatest hits.

That said, I was fortunate to see Bowie in concert on several occasions, starting with Earls Court in 1978, and including Milton Keynes Bowl 1983 and (most memorably) Nottingham’s Rock City in August 1997.

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Some Bowie memorabilia from my attic

This last was the closest I got to the man, playing in a small 1,500 capacity club venue and standing fairly close to the stage. He performed a long set with many of my favourites, the darker side of Bowie, starting with Quicksand from Hunky Dory “I’m sinking in the quicksand of my thought” and including I’m Afraid of Americans, Fashion, Fame, Under Pressure, White Light White Heat, and much of Outside.

Late period Bowie is more of an acquired taste than his early years but rewarding. I found The Next Day in 2013 moving and when he sang “Where are we now” of course I was transported back to my schooldays and asking the same question of myself.

Bowie was reclusive in his later years, especially after being injured on tour in 2004, and lived quietly in New York.

Today’s news brought the news of his death, “after a courageous 18-month battle with cancer” according to his son Duncan.

This means that he composed his just-released album Blackstar in full knowledge of his illness and perhaps anticipating departure.

The song Lazarus, accompanied by a New York musical of the same name, seems particuarly to the point.

“Look up here, man, I’m in danger
I’ve got nothing left to lose
I’m so high, it makes my brain whirl
Dropped my cell phone down below
Ain’t that just like me?

This way or no way
You know I’ll be free
Just like that bluebird
Now, ain’t that just like me?”

Other lyrics on the album have new significance today, like these from Dollar Days:

“If I’ll never see the English evergreens I’m running to
It’s nothing to meet, it’s nothing to see
I’m trying to
I’m dying too”

Bowie made his ending an artistic moment and one that is not without hope – Lazarus rose again after all – but also, like all his best work, full of ambiguity.

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Thank you David Bowie.

Bowie is – Exhibition at the V&A London

The David Bowie exhibition at the V&A in London is stunning. It has been on since 23rd March and remains until 11 August, but advance tickets sold quickly which is why I ended up on an overflow date: Sunday evening when the rest of the museum is closed. Setting the scene outside is some faded pavement art including the iconic “Heroes” pose. We went in through a side door, along a corridor, and to the exhibition entrance to pick up the Sennheiser headphones and wireless receiver; these detect where you are and provide appropriate music and commentary.

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The sound was excellent overall though the technology not quite perfect, particularly towards the end where the concert soundtracks seemed a bit mixed up, but no matter.

There are several kinds of exhibit:

  • Writings and occasionally paintings by Bowie and others – including handwritten lyrics, sometimes with variations and corrections
  • Album artwork and outtakes
  • Costumes
  • Stage sets, some sketched, some 3D models
  • Photographs
  • Concert footage
  • Film extracts
  • Books and posters that influenced Bowie or capture his era

The standard of the exhibits is excellent, with many things that I (as a reasonably well informed though not quite obsessive fan) had not seen before. It started well for me with a handwritten note about 1. Outside, which starts:

What Eno and I are endeavouring to do with this album is, by means of the loosely knit story line and characters, create a textual and musical diary that will record feelings and fears as we approach the end of the millennium.

The visual layout of the exhibition (along with the audio soundtrack) is key to its appeal. I would describe it as appropriately fractured, with clever use of light and shade, and splashes of bright colour to offset the monochrome of the many handwritten or typed documents.

I was expecting a plentiful array of stage costumes, and there is, but at no point does this feel like a costume exhibition. The costumes are positioned for dramatic effect, many of them high up, and form a kind of backdrop to the other exhibits.

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The popularity of the event means that you cannot proceed quickly, especially as it takes time to read and take in many of the exhibits. This might even be a good thing, forcing you not to rush. According to the organisers, most people take around 90 minutes to look round; I took a little longer.

I was pleasantly surprised by the demographics of those attending. There were plenty of visitors in their twenties and thirties, who had not been born when Bowie was strutting his stuff as Ziggy Stardust, which made me wonder how they had encountered his work.

It was intriguing to see some of Jonathan Barnbrook’s alternative designs for the cover of The Next Day, Bowie’s most recent album. The final version shows a white square blanking much of the sleeve of “Heroes”; alternates show subverted cover art based on Pin Ups and Aladdin Sane as well as a different take on “Heroes” using an overlaid bright red patch with the lettering “Where Are We Now?” showing through; perhaps that one was intended for the single.

The film section includes part of the Elephant Man show in New York, in which Bowie gives a superb, heart-rending performance. I hope that a whole show exists on film and that we get to see it sometime.

The large room at the end is where you see and hear concert footage including some rarities, such as Sweet Thing from the Tower Philadelphia in 1974 (the David Live concerts). This is where the audio went slightly wrong for me which was a shame; but I did enjoy watching and hearing the end of the famous Ziggy retirement concert in great quality. “Not only is this the last show of the tour … it’s the last show … that we’ll ever do.” Cue wailing and tears; apparently even the band did not know in advance. What a showman.

Make sure you catch this before it finishes. Although advance tickets are sold out, some are released each  day if you turn up in the morning.

A new old song from david bowie: where are we now?

Why is the arrival of a new song from David Bowie so moving? Several reasons.

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First, the surprise of it. A decade in reclusive retirement, the inevitable rumours of ill health, little prospect of anything new, and then this, not only a song, but an entire album is in the can.

Second, the song itself. Cover designer Johnathan Barnbrook writes:

The song Where are we now? is a comparison between Berlin when the wall fell and Berlin today.

which has some authority since he worked with Bowie, but of course it is more than that, it is about Bowie then and now, and for those of us who grew up with this music, about ourselves then and now.

It is not a happy song, mournful and uncertain about the future (the song title ends with a question mark) but it is not an unhappy song; Bowie seems more at peace with himself than in the past.

I love the song and expect to play it frequently for a while.

Never forget though that this is art and comes from one skilled at hiding in plain sight.

Much respect for Bowie that is able to be his age (like Leonard Cohen) rather than re-enacting his youth (like Mick Jagger).

The cover of the album is also striking.

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Do read Barnbrook’s questions and answers from the link above for some insight into why it is as it is, for example:

Obscuring Bowie’s image is also reference to his identity, not only in the past when he changed endlessly but that he has been absent from the music scene for the past ten years. Was this an act to hide his identity or that he has simply become more comfortable with it?

Another question!

I can’t wait for the album.

Review: The Bowie Variations by Mike Garson

I am a big David Bowie fan (as I guess will be most purchasers of this CD) and first noticed Garson’s work in the magnificent, edgy accompaniment to Aladdin Sane – specifically, that track, though he makes a great contribution to the entire album.

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Garson played on many of Bowie’s albums, from Ziggy Stardust through to Reality, and made a key contribution to the sound. I particularly like his work on David Live, Bowie’s live album from 1974, but it is consistently good, which is no doubt why he remained part of the band.

This CD is I guess a kind of tribute and reflection on his work with Bowie; one of the tracks is actually called Tribute to David. Garson performs solo piano variations on a number of Bowie’s songs. Note that these are variations, not performances as such, and since Garson is a creative jazz pianist they really are variations; in some cases it takes a while to work out what the song is, even if you know Bowie’s version well.

The performance is excellent, and the recording quality is outstanding. Nevertheless I was a little disappointed; found it a little too mellow and smooth for my taste. Perhaps Garson needs the interplay with the band to spark that edgy quality that I love.

David bowie Station to station gets the super deluxe treatment

In the autumn of 1975, David Bowie was immersed in the alien character of  Thomas Newton in Nicholas Roeg’s film The Man Who Fell to Earth. He was also addicted to cocaine, suffering delusions, and by accounts of those close to him at the time, seemingly near to breakdown. It’s all a bit hard to take in, considering that during this period of his life he produced what I consider his best work, the album Station to Station – though his flirtation with fascism makes me uncomfortable.

The music is magnificent though; powerful, unsettling, emotional. Stylistically it is an amalgam of the the funk of Young Americans and the rock which preceded it; though saying that does no justice to the fact that Bowie had moved on from both.

The title itself is a pun – the track opens with white noise and chuffing train noises, a radio tuning, a train travelling. Bowie is mentally travelling too, too fast for safety. Earl Slick’s guitar is frenetic and urgent. The album is cold in feel, perfectly suited to the stark mostly black and white cover, but humanised by the two softer ballads which conclude each side on the original vinyl release: Wild is the Wind and Word on a Wing.

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Now Station to Station is getting the super deluxe treatment. In September EMI will release a lavish special edition box which includes  5 CDS, a DVD, three vinyl records, and a pile of memorabilia. How can you get that lot from one album? Here’s how:

CD 1: 2010 transfer of Station To Station from the original stereo analogue master
CD 2: Station To Station 1985 CD master
CD 3: Station To Station single edits five track EP containing Golden Years, TVC15, Stay, Word On A Wing and Station To Station
CDs 4 & 5: Live Nassau Coliseum ’76
DVD containing the following…
Station To Station (original analogue master, 96kHz/24bit LPCM stereo)
Station To Station (new Harry Maslin 5.1 surround sound mix in DTS 96/24 and Dolby Digital)
Station To Station (original analogue master, LPCM stereo)
Station To Station (new Harry Maslin stereo mix, 48kHz/24bit LPCM stereo)
12″ heavyweight vinyl of Station To Station from the original stereo analogue master in replica sleeve
2 x 12″ heavyweight vinyl of Live Nassau Coliseum ’76 in gatefold sleeve
24-page booklet with sleevenotes by Cameron Crowe and chronology by Kevin Cann and also including…
– Previously unpublished Steve Shapiro photo
– Geoff MacCormack photos
– Andrew Kent live Nassau photos
Replica David Bowie On Stage 1976 press kit folder containing the following…
– Replica Nassau ticket from night of the show
– Replica backstage pass
– Replica A4 biog
– Replica band line-up
– 3 x 10×8″ press shots
Replica 1976 Fan Club Folder containing the following…
– Replica fan club membership card
– Fan club certificate
– 2 small collector cards
– 2 A4 photo cards
– Replica 4-page biography
– 2 badges
– 6 panel folded Steve Shapiro photo poster of Bowie kneeling

Some of this deserves a little explanation. Why is the “1985 CD master” included? This would be the first CD release, on RCA. and sought after by collectors. The reason for the popularity of these early CDs is that in general they sound closer to the original vinyl records. Bowie’s back catalogue has been remastered many times, but all the later CD versions sound quite different, from the over-bright Ryko issues to the noise-reduced later efforts. I guess someone noticed that some fans still seek out the RCA CDs and decided to include it here.

The concert from the Nassau Coliseum was a famous bootleg called The Thin White Duke, though it is to be hoped that the sound quality here will be superior. It is a great concert, and better than any of the other official live material in my opinion.

Very nice; but I find myself rather irritated by this release. Although there will also be a CD release with the remastered Station to Station and the Nassau Coliseum concert, much of the material is unique to the big box. In particular, the high resolution stereo, the new surround sound mix, and the new stereo remix. Fans who want to hear these also have to purchase the rest of the box, even though they might not have a record player for the three vinyl records, for example. It’s annoying if like me you are mainly interested in the music.

Another disappointment is the absence of any true rarities. Many of us would like to hear the unused soundtrack Bowie created for the Man Who Fell to Earth, for example.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot here to look forward to – if you can live with feeling somewhat exploited as you open your wallet for this super-deluxe, super-expensive box containing material some of which you have most likely bought at least once before.

Station to Station on Amazon.com

Station to Station on Amazon.co.uk