Somewhere I’ve got a book, “David Bowie in his own words.” Sadly Bowie is no longer with us, and we have to make do with David Bowie in other people’s words. Here are some good ones.
This book is subtitled “A tribute to Bowie by his artistic collaborators and contemporaries,” which describes it exactly. It’s been put together by Rolling Stone writer Brian Hiatt, who conducted the interviews, and I doff my cap to him: he’s managed to ask the right people the right questions, and assemble the results into a tasteful and compelling portrait.
The first contributor is George Underwood, a schoolfriend who became an a artist and contributed to some of Bowie’s album covers.
Amazingly, George Underwood left a message for Bowie on his answerphone in 1976 or thereabouts, saying “I’m happy, hope your happy too.” The words later turned up on Ashes to Ashes. “But I don’t know if I’m the Action Man,” writes Underwood.
Then there’s Dana Gillespie, an early singer friend for whom Bowie wrote the song Andy Warhol, though it first appeared on Hunky Dory.
And Mike Garson, who is fascinating about the tension of being a classical and jazz pianist and working with a rock musician. “There was a part of me for sure that recognized his genius … but let me tell you for sure, there was another part of me at the time that just thought, this is way below my gift and abilities.”
He later remarks, “I was the longest member in the band, when you put all the hours and tours together.”
Earl Slick writes frankly about his work with Bowie. I was interested in his remarks about recording Station to Station. “He was not as out of control as he was made out to be, in terms of his functionality. When he got his mind into something he could hyper-focus like a _. I don’t care if he was living on milk.”
He also reveals that there was nearly a tour after the Reality tour. “There were about three or four close calls where I did get phone calls, and I was put on hold to tour, but it didn’t happen.”
And later Slick writes, “there were parts of David that you could never get through.”
Carlos Alomar: “The master puppeteer actually did know what he was doing, and not only can you understand that now, but you see it play out constantly on all those albums.”
He also recounts his goodbye. “I saw David at Tony Visconti’s birthday partly last year and he was very very fragile. In hindsight, I can see what was happening … we talked about old times and it was good to talk about things, heal old wounds … now I understand it was that goodbye.”
Artist Derek Bosher tells a story about Bowie being photographed. “As we were chatting the PR person came over and said, David, there’s a photographer here from Paris Match. David, in real life, used to always walk quite slowly and talk quietly, he never shouted, different from the almost narcissistic public persona. … they start shooting and he becomes David Bowie. And then straight after that, he said, “Let’s go sit down again. It was like watching Clark Kent going into the telephone booth and becoming Superman, then turning back.”
And Nile Rodgers, of Chic, says Bowie really did call him up and say, “you do hits, I’d like you to do a record of hits” – it became, of course, Let’s Dance. His account of how it was recorded is incredible, gripping. I won’t spoil it for you by quoting everything.
This isn’t a picture book, but it is illustrated with around 40 photos and artworks most of which I had not seen before. The printing is high quality and this is just a lovely book, you will know Bowie better after reading it.
The only thing I don’t much like is the cover, which looks rather cheap to me, not hinting at the wonders within. And I suppose there are other contributors it would have been nice to see included, Brian Eno, Robert Fripp, Tony Visconti and more; but you never get everyone in a project like this.
The full list of contributors:
George Underwood Dana Gillespie Mike Garson Toni Basil Earl Slick Carlos Alomar Debbie Harry and Chris Stein Martyn Ware Derek Boshier Nile Rodgers Stephen Finer Gail Ann Dorsey Zachary Alford Cyndi Lauper Robyn Hitchcock
“Life on Mars?” has always been a favourite among David Bowie’s songs, and even more so since his death in January. Many have performed it as a tribute, not least by Lorde at the Brits Bowie tribute, Rick Wakeman (the pianist on the original) and Sarah Blasko.
A great song then; but one characteristic it shares with Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody, another much-loved track, is that the lyrics are fantastically obscure, particularly in the second verse.
It’s a God awful small affair To the girl with the mousey hair But her mummy is yelling, "No!" And her daddy has told her to go But her friend is no where to be seen Now she walks through her sunken dream To the seats with the clearest view And she’s hooked to the silver screen But the film is a sadd’ning bore For she’s lived it ten times or more She could spit in the eyes of fools As they ask her to focus on
Sailors, Fighting in the dance hall Oh man! Look at those cavemen go It’s the freakiest show Take a look at the lawman Beating up the wrong guy Oh man! Wonder if he’ll ever know He’s in the best selling show Is there life on Mars?
It’s on America’s tortured brow That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow Now the workers have struck for fame ‘Cause Lennon’s on sale again See the mice in their million hordes From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads Rule Britannia is out of bounds To my mother, my dog, and clowns But the film is a sadd’ning bore ‘Cause I wrote it ten times or more It’s about to be writ again As I ask you to focus on
Still, while Queen’s effort may veer towards pomp and nonsense I have nothing but respect for Bowie’s lyrical craftsmanship. I think we will struggle to make perfect narrative sense of the song but nevertheless there may be some insights to be had.
What does Bowie himself have to say about it? The back cover of Hunky Dory, the album from which the song comes, states “Inspired by Frankie”, a reference to Frank Sinatra. The contemporary advertisement for the album adds more handwritten notes on the song, this time “A sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media.”
Then there are the notes on the song for the 2008 iSelect compilation:
This song was so easy. Being young was easy. A really beautiful day in the park, sitting on the steps of the bandstand. ‘Sailors bap-bap-bap-bap-baaa-bap.’ An anomic (not a ‘gnomic’) heroine. Middle-class ecstasy. I took a walk to Beckenham High Street to catch a bus to Lewisham to buy shoes and shirts but couldn’t get the riff out of my head. Jumped off two stops into the ride and more or less loped back to the house up on Southend Road.
Workspace was a big empty room with a chaise lounge; a bargain-price art nouveau screen (‘William Morris,’ so I told anyone who asked); a huge overflowing freestanding ashtray and a grand piano. Little else. I started working it out on the piano and had the whole lyric and melody finished by late afternoon. Nice.
Another key reference is this interview from around 2002, specifically about the making of “Life on Mars?”
In this interview, Bowie tells the story of how he was asked to write an English lyric for a French song, called Comme D’Habitude (rough translation, "As Usual").
The original song, entitled Pour Moi ("For Me") was written by Gilles Thibaut (lyrics) and Jacques Revaux (music) and offered to singer Claude François. The lyrics and music were adapted by all three, renamed Comme D’Habitude (rough translation, "As Usual"), and the song became a break-up song related to the ending of the relationship between François and the young Eurovision winner France Gall.
Bowie translated the song as Even a Fool learns to Love, and you can hear a snippet of his version in the interview above, but François rejected his lyrics. (Bowie adds that it was “a godawful lyric. Dreadful).
Comme D’Habitude describes a relationship near is end; he is still in love but they see little of one another as he goes to work before she gets up ("Quietly I leave the house. Everything is grey outside. As usual") and is in bed before she returns. "All alone, I’ll go and lie down in this big cold bed, as usual". They make love but he is "playing at pretending".
Bowie translated the song as Even a Fool learns to Love. His version is also about a relationship gone sour, but tells the whole story, about a man who is the life and soul of the party ("a fool"), meets a girl, falls in love ("a clown and an angel so much in love"), but the joke "turns stale" and the time when even a fool learns to love becomes a "sour time".
“The next time I heard it, it was My Way by Frank Sinatra,” says Bowie. François had rejected his lyrics, and Paul Anka had come up with My Way.
“I was really pissed off. It should have been my song. So I thought, OK I’ll write my own version. So it’s My Way on Mars,” says Bowie.
“Inspired? It was more revenge.”
"Life on Mars?", while not exactly a relationship song shares with Comme D’Habitude a sense of discontent with life and reflection upon it.
Actually the opening lines do suggest a relationship "a godawful small affair", one that is unacceptable to mum and dad. The girl goes out, like the man in Comme D’Habitude, into a grey and sad world. Her friend (boy or girl?) cannot be found.
Bowie’s song then departs from the script, exploding into a kaleidoscope of images as the mousy-haired girl stares at the cinema screen. Yet this does not rescue her: she sees clearly that the fantasy world of entertainment will do nothing to change the greyness of her world. Mickey Mouse is not a real friend; he grows up "a cow" and whatever that means it is not flattering.
The song becomes surreal as Bowie plays with reality.
The girl is watching the film. The girl is living the film. The girl’s life is a film. The girl, or the narrator, wrote the film. The film is being "writ again" as we are trapped in our humdrum lives. “A sensitive young girl’s reaction to the media.”
Is there Life on Mars? Wait a moment, how did Mars get into this song? Bowie is playing with us of course. Let’s look at a few shades of meaning:
2001 A Space Odyssey, part inspiration for Space Oddity, "look at those cavemen go", and note the little quote from Also Sprach Zarathustra as the song fades. The film’s central character goes to Jupiter not Mars, but hey, it’s all space; and like Space Oddity, inner space as much as outer space. Is there life there? Maybe, but it’s pretty desolate.
Life on Mars is a B movie too, cheap sci-fi. It’s escapism but not life, not real life.
Is there life on Mars? is a question of yearning, because there is no life on earth, or it seems that way in our most desolate moments.
Bowie tells us that this kind of interpretation is not too far off. In 1998 he was interviewed by Alan Yentob for the BBC, in a kind of follow-up to Yenton’s earlier documentary Cracked Actor.
David Bowie telling Alan Yentob about Life on Mars
“She may be an ordinary girl,” says Yentob, “but isn’t she as alienated as any of your other characters?”
“I think she finds herself let down,” Bowie replies. “I think she finds herself disappointed by reality. I think she sees that although she’s living in the doldrums of reality she’s been told that there’s a far greater life somewhere, and she’s bitterly disappointed that she doesn’t have access to it. It’s very hard to think back to one’s state of mind 25 years ago. I guess I would feel sorry for her now, I think I had empathy with her at the time. That’s probably the difference.”
When asked in the 2002 interview referenced above about whether the song is about alienation, he says:
“A lot of it is. One’s interior kind of isolation as well. It doesn’t just mean one’s social isolation, it can mean how you get in contact with your own feelings. It can be quite personal in that way.
“My subject matter hasn’t really changed over the years. I’m still in a way writing about life on Mars, all these years later. (Laughs). And the man who sold the world … the way that I present songs has changed a lot. And the style for each album has changed considerably. I’ll often try new rhythms and kinds of arrangements. It’s like, I want to keep writing about the same subject but my approach, it’s like I’m trying to get into it, like finding a different door each time I approach that same subject.”
Can we go further, and examine the lyrics with more precision? It is difficult because the song is deliberately surreal; yet there are intriguing connections which may or may not be intended. Is it Lennon (“Power to the People”) or Lenin who is on sale again? Bowie with his love of word play likely intended both meanings.
What about “The workers have struck for fame?” In 1941, there was a famous strike by Disney’s (“Mickey Mouse”) animators. One of their grievances was lack of credit for their work:
"To add insult to injury, the animators weren’t featured in the credits of the film, with all credit going to the owner of the studios himself, Walt Disney."
Bowie however did not want to explain everything. Mick Rock, who worked with Bowie on a video for the song, says:
I would not be so presumptuous as to try and put any meaning on it. Certainly David Bowie never has as far as I know. I don’t know what it means. But it means a helluva lot to me, it’s like a poem by Rimbaud, say, what does it mean? Intellectually it is very hard to define. You can only say, I love it.
I would not go so far as Rock; Bowie has given plenty of clues about his intent in writing the song. At the same time, he enjoyed leaving room for the listener’s imagination and participation, referring to the French painter Marcel Duchamp and approving in this interview with Jeremy Paxman:
The idea that the piece of work is not finished until the audience come to it and add their own interpretation, and what the piece of art is about is the grey space in the middle.
However you look at it though, it is a pretty gloomy lyric. Why do we like it? Well, it is witty, it is evocative, it is mysterious; and the music absolutely soars, complete with unexpected key changes and a near-octave leap from "on" to "Mars". Like all the best music, it takes us out of ourselves to another place and makes our reality a little less grey than it was before.
Thanks to members of the Steve Hoffman Music Forum for assistance with puzzling out this song, and to author Nicholas Pegg for the source of the quote from the Yentob interview, which he also references in his book The Complete David Bowie.
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.
The vinyl on the other hand has a black cover with a cut-out opening onto the black vinyl inside.
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:
And here is the vinyl:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’ve just received my copy of David Bowie’s A Reality Tour, a double CD for which I paid £11.98 from Amazon.co.uk – though if I’d waited a few days, I would have been able to buy a US import for £8.59 including shipping, at today’s prices.
For my money I get a tri-fold package with photos from the tour, and a 12-page booklet with more photos and credits.
The CDs between them have 33 tracks – not bad value.
Still, I could have downloaded from Apple iTunes for £9.99 – which is a little less, or a little more, than the CD price depending whether you compare with what I paid or the best current deal.
What is annoying though is that the iTunes download has two additional tracks:
5.15 the Angels Have Gone
They are probably nothing special; but it is irritating.
On the other hand, iTunes has its annoyances too. The tracks are lossy-compressed; and even if you don’t think the difference is audible, that is still a disadvantage if you want to convert to some other format, as generational loss creeps in. I miss out on the packaging (though there may be some digital booklet, I’m not sure). In addition, the rights I purchase are non-transferable, so if I decide I don’t like the album, I can’t stick it on eBay to reduce my loss.
The end result of each purchase is similar, as I rip the CD for streaming anyway.
On balance, I think the CD is a better buy; but I can see where this is going.