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Friday, February 8, 2008

psycho fashion

I read with delight and anticipation the following author blurb at the end of David Byrne's survival guide to the music industry in the January issue of Wired:
'David Byrne is currently collaborating with Fatboy Slim and Brian Eno. Separately.'

The first collaboration is 'Here Lies Love', Byrne's song cycle about Imelda Marcos, 'with musical contributions from Fatboy Slim (Norman Cook)', as Byrne's blog describes it. (See my entry for February 7, 2007.)

It's the mysterious Eno project that's got me all excited. The last time David Byrne and Brian Eno worked together, the result was four of my all-time favourite albums: Talking Heads' More Songs about Buildings and Food, Fear of Music, and Remain in Light, and Eno & Byrne's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts. Think of the last one as Steve Reich meets Fela Kuti via Grandmaster Flash, and you'll get the idea.

That era, 1977 to 1981, was a special time in music and the arts generally. I like to think of it as the culmination of the 1960's, or, if you prefer, their last hurrah. It was a period of cultural experimentation, political skepticism, and young people being fabulous, but without the assassinations, nightly reports of war dead, and Richard Nixon. I can think of no better evidence than TV Party, Glenn O'Brien's love-in après la lettre on Manhattan public access cable.

Just think about all the fantastically weird/angry/trippy music that came out between 1977 and 1981 on both sides of the Atlantic by Talking Heads, Elvis Costello, Chic, The Clash, Parliament-Funkadelic, Blondie, Joe Jackson, et al. Disco reached its peak and became the raw material for rappers and DJ's. And, perhaps for the last time, there was cheap real estate in NYC.

Besides the US and the UK, the other country that belongs in this conversation was Germany, where the excesses of youth, cf. Baader-Meinhof, took on a more extreme quality. It's Berlin, the walled city of the Cold War, that calls our attention back to Brian Eno and his collaborations, for it was there that David Bowie, at his most vampiric and drug-addled, retreated for his great strung-out trilogy with Eno: Low, Heroes, and Lodger. From the electronic melancholia of Low to the persona of the helpless egomaniacal DJ on Lodger, Bowie fed off the body of ideas in circulation at the time and gave them the tinge of the undead.

But here's the thing that I've always wondered, and the simultaenous Eno connection makes it all the more bizarre: why have David Byrne and David Bowie never collaborated? I've never even seen them photographed together. Think of all they have in common:
-They both recorded at least three albums each with Brian Eno between 1977 and 1981.
-They both live in New York and are devoted to contemporary art.
-They're both known for showing up at concerts all over the city to keep up with what the new bands are doing. (See also their live appearances with the Arcade Fire.)

How can two people in the same line of work walk the same streets, frequent the same galleries and concert halls, and collaborate with the same partners (Eno, Philip Glass, Adrian Belew) yet never appear together? Is one the super-powered alter ego of the other? (Hmm. Which would be which?)

So I got to thinking last week: what form could a Bowie-Byrne collaboration take? They could write and record a song together, but one song would not be enough to satisfy anyone. At the other end, an entire album of co-written duets doesn't strike me as a good idea either. Neither one is known for sharing the stage for long.

And then the idea came to me for something in between that would put the two of them in musical and creative conversation with each other but would be more imaginative than an album of duets—a four-song EP according to the following rules:

1. A new song co-written and performed by the two of them.
2. A Bowie song covered by Byrne.
3. A Byrne song covered by Bowie.
4. A joint cover of a song written by someone else that they both love and have never recorded.

I have suggestions for 2 and 3. Aside from Guster, Bowie and Byrne may be the only musicians who have recorded songs that include the lyrics 'Fa fa fa fa fa...' Think about it: David Bowie singing 'Psycho Killer' and David Byrne singing 'Fashion'!
'There's a brand new dance
But I don't know it's name,
That people from bad homes
Do again and again.
It's big and it's bland
Full tension and fear.
They do it over there
But we don't do it here.'

The declarative quality of these lyrics from Bowie's 'Fashion' sound like they were written by Byrne in the 70's but with the paranoid undertones brought to the fore.

'Ce que j'ai fait, ce soir-là
Ce qu'elle a dit, ce soir-là
Réalisant mon espoir,
Je me lance vers la gloire ... OK
We are vain and we are blind.
I hate people when they're not polite.'

Can't you just hear Bowie's jaded, disinterested sophisticate persona sing-saying these lines from 'Psycho Killer'?

Stranger things have happened than blog entries making their way to their intended targets and dreams coming true. In the meanwhile, while we wait for my magic wand to arrive from Ebay, what song do readers think they should cover together? The only rule is that it cannot be something that either has already recorded.

What do you think, reader? Now that my blog hiatus is over, show the love by posting a comment with your song title and explanation.

[Note: The first comment in the thread has somehow disappeared and now Dan's comment about late Bowie cannot be understood properly. The missing first comment was a provocation from a reader who said that Bowie was 'shot', whatever that means.]

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Blogger Daniel F said...

I wouldn't say Bowie was shot. Heathen was excellent, and if Reality wasn't in quite the same league, it was entirely honourable. Perversely perhaps, I consider it a sign of Bowie's reviving creative and critical powers that he hasn't released anything since 2003, by far the longest hiatus in his career. If he's decided to follow the Scott Walker path and take ten years over each album, then great. I only wish he had taken a similar trouble over his output between 1982 and 1990. If he's alert enough to realise that he has nothing to put out that's worthy of his immense reputation, that's also fine.

In that context, a cheery, we're-great-rock-mates knees-up with David Byrne is the last thing Bowie needs.

Two random things.

1. I recently watched Absolute Beginners and The Man Who Fell To Earth back to back. If the first offers incontrovertible proof that Bowie can't act, in the second he gives what I think is one of the great _film performances_ of all time.

2. You're absolutely right about the New Wave/Disco era. It may interest you to know that Nick Cave has described his new single "Dig, Lazarus, Dig!!!" as "most of all, an elegy to the New York City of the 70's." You can watch the very amusing video here:


5:26 AM, February 09, 2008

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I pity the fool who takes it upon his deaf-ass self to pronounce David Bowie "shot". Bowie still vies with David Beckham for the title of Greatest Living Englishman. And notice the initials both those men share with David Byrne. Is there something fateful, something nurturing of outlandish genius, about the mere fact of having the initials DB? (Note: I've just realised this theory is deeply troubled by the existence of David Baddiel.)

As to the claim that Bowie "can't act", I refer interested readers to his really amazing performance as electricity magus Nikolai Tesla in the very interesting 2006 film The Prestige, which also stars Huge Ackman and Christian Bale; as well as to Bowie's ideal casting as Pontius Pilate in Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ, and beg that we conduct henceforth a more nuanced assessment of his thespian powers.

As to Jeff's marvellous idea of a collaboration between Bowie and Byrne, I can only suggest that they sing a cover of "Hotel California", rearranged as a blip-grunge-noise fiasco, with an eleven-minute guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen.

8:16 AM, February 09, 2008

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like to think of the period you mention as being largely created by Lou Reed; it was when the bands so famously influenced by the Velvet Underground started to come together, some five years after his Transformer and Berlin (natch) albums, after his invention of punk and electronica with Metal Machine Music, and in what is arguably one of the thinner patches of his career (though not without some highlights). But Reed must surely be credited as a leading figure in any era that combines punk, glam, pop, and musical experimentation.

This is also the period when REM, Morrissey, The Cure, and U2 were buying records, strumming guitars, writing lyrics on the back of napkins in dirty cafes, and dreaming of filling a stadium with thousands of cheering fans - all of which awaited them some five or six years later.

8:24 AM, February 09, 2008

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Without even reaching the question of whether Bowie is 'shot' or not, I invite scrutiny of the 'shot' narrative itself. When is an artist beyond the hope of a return to creativity? Can the life of the mind ever be so irremediably right-angled? Even Marianne Faithfull pulled herself together and is putting out great records. See her 2004 album Before the Poison for recent evidence.

I agree entirely with Dan about Bowie's recent albums as well as those of the 1980's, but I can't agree with his pessimism about my imaginary DB2 project. Maybe a collaboration with Bowie is what Bowie needs. He does tend to feed off other people's ideas and adapt them for his own purposes.

I am ashamed to say that I have somehow still never seen The Man Who Fell to Earth. Apologies. I need to rectify that.

Maybe I've got Byrne on the mind too much today, but the Nick Cave song reminded me of Once in a Lifetime. I think it's the line lengths. Compare:
1. 'You may find yourself living in a shotgun shack.'
2. 'Larry made his nest up in the autumn branches.'
The pauses between lines are similar, too. And Cave speaks some of the lines. I dig that song. Thanks for that.

I like Derek B.'s suggestion. Here's mine: Merle Haggard's 'Okie from Muskogee' sung to something by Fela, 'Opposite People' or maybe something slower like 'Coffin for Head of State' (for musical reasons, not necessarily for Fela's titles or lyrics).

Finally, SW is correct about Lou Reed's foundational influence. Mad props to Lou Reed.

2:29 PM, February 09, 2008

Anonymous Anonymous said...

May I speak for Lou (seeing as I never have the courage to speak to him when we bump into him): Thanks for the props, man.

By the way, indubitably because of your blentry, I had these lovely flashbacks to a mid 1980s ski trip to Wengen, the sound track for which was entirely made up of Talking Heads songs. Given the compacted time of youth, the songs seemed retro, as if from another era, though most of them were surely less than a decade old, and some were probably only a year or two old.

3:18 PM, February 09, 2008

Blogger Daniel F said...

"New Yorkers are sadly more “professional” in their attitude towards their art. We usually perform for money under controlled circumstances. We see ourselves as artistes whose performances are as controlled as we can manage them. [...] The camaraderie amongst musicians does exists up here in NY, but can you imagine a house party where Madonna picks up a guitar after dinner and serenades the drunken guests with a new song, and then passes the guitar to David Bowie? Not likely, I imagine, though who knows?"

David Byrne, Journal, 7.4.06

5:15 PM, February 09, 2008

Anonymous Anonymous said...

By a remarkable coincidence, it was, so the internet tells me, David Byrne and Madonna who were the presenters at David Bowie's "induction" into the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame in 1996. But has anyone really seen photographic or videographic evidence of this alleged moment of both DBs being in the same room?

7:27 PM, February 09, 2008

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm pleased to see that my remarks about the late, near great David Bowie got such responses.
I never understood the response Bowie got in some quarters. Other than the marvelous "Rebel, Rebel" and precious little else, his body of work lacked the essential qualities needed to be labeled a "rocker". Anyone with access to a great recording studio can produce the techno-pop crap Bowie has imposed upon us.
Mr. Byrne, would be better served going back to the studio by himself with some excellent session men and make the music only he can make.

12:20 AM, February 10, 2008

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I pity the fool who thinks that The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars or Tin Machine are not, in a very real sense, "rock", or that Low or 1. Outside are "techno-pop crap". Has anyone noticed, meanwhile, that Bob Dylan shares the same initials, only reversed? I'm sure that means something important.

5:14 AM, February 10, 2008

Blogger Daniel F said...

D = 4th letter.
B = 2nd letter.

Hence "42", right?

5:44 AM, February 10, 2008

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yes, but is 42 a self-lacerating Bowie ("Bowie was never a rocker!" - "Yes you were, Mr Bowie, and you're still a star!") or a panicked Byrne ("What am I going to do next? What do the kids think about a Byrne and Santana collaboration? I'll go to the blogs to find out.")? So, 42, are you an obvious sock puppet for Byrne or a subtle sock puppet Bowie?

(BTW, either way, I love the fact that one of them is an avid jeffstrabone.blogspot reader.)

6:55 AM, February 10, 2008

Blogger Daniel F said...

"[David Bowie's] body of work lacked the essential qualities needed to be labeled a rocker."

One way of looking at white male pop music is to see it as existing between two poles, which, for want of better terms, I call Mod and Rocker? Moddish things include short hair, short songs, liking soul music, fashion, dancing, taking speed, exploring the possibilities of studio technology, irony, gender confusion. Whereas Rockers tend towards long hair, long songs, liking Elvis, wearing leather, moshing, motorbikes, taking cannabis, guitar solos, exploring the possibilities of playing live, sincerity.

On this axis, Bowie is a quintessential mod (of course, in the sixties he actually was a mod). A good example of a rocker would be Springsteen. Dylan is a rocker, though in 1965 he had a moddish moment. The Who started as mods, but became rockers. Maybe you could say the same about the Stones, but they were a bit more rocker to start with. The Beatles were total mods. Led Zeppelin were total rockers. Van Morrison is a rocker, so is Nick Cave. Kraftwerk are mods, and so is David Byrne. Punk was pretty mod, though the Clash went a bit rocker after a while.

Morrissey is a really hard case. He styled himself like Elvis and both with the Smiths and solo performed violently passionate concerts backed by wall of feedback guitars. All that points to him being a rocker. But his fetishisation of the perfect 3-minute single, his love of humour, his "gay-esque" iconography, that's all pretty mod. Lou Reed is similar. His drag-look, his witty observational writing, his Warhol-esque sensibility, they're fairly mod, whereas his leather-look, his long songs and concept albums, and his druggy indulgences, very rocker. I guess you could sum it up by saying that both Lou and Morrissey have personae that contain strong elements of irony AND authenticity.

9:51 AM, February 10, 2008

Anonymous Anonymous said...

That is one of the best uses of a question mark I have ever seen.

12:11 PM, February 10, 2008

Blogger Daniel F said...

Another Mod/Rocker distinction I meant to include was metropolitan vs rural/"heartlands" (the contrast between, for example, on the one hand the Pet Shop Boys' urbane sophistication or the Ramones'
downtown cool, and on the other Led Zep's Tolkieniana or Bruce's small-town schtick).

12:50 PM, February 10, 2008

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't help but love the Mod/Rocker distinction, and especially your conclusion, where two artists as distinct from one another as Morrissey and Reed actually come together as representatives of some form that includes both authenticity and irony. I'm not being sarcastic - I really enjoyed the description of the two poles and how my two favourite artists of all time move between those poles.

But of course, alluded to in your splitting categories, are what one might call general tendencies, which has a more lumping effect. The most prominent tendency is towards transgression, whether it is the hypermasculine transgression of rockers, who are so manly they can adopt the long hair of women, the leather of the hardcore gay circuit, and the softest of soft drugs, cannabis, and yet still be cultural manmeat; or the darkly amorphous sexuality of mods (as you put, "gender confusion"), with their short Twiggy-like hair cuts, their frenetic speed, the sexually exploitative and deliciously ambiguous worlds of fashion and the dance floor. Thus, "mod" and "rocker" are different takes on the same song - rather like your mod par excellence, Bowie, covering your rocker par excellence, Springsteen, in It's Hard to be a Saint in the City.

My point is not to dispute your distinction, which I still think holds, but rather to consider how it might pertain to what Jeff's post and this thread has largely been about: collaborations.

1:19 PM, February 10, 2008

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

What an excellent comment thread, particularly the Mod/Rocker categorisation.

I had no idea that Byrne and Madonna inducted Bowie into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but their website testifies to the fact: 'January 17, 1996: David Bowie is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the eleventh annual induction dinner. Madonna and David Byrne are his presenters.' I dare say it enhances the coolness of all three of them.

The music lovers who fashion themselves as, fairly exclusively, rock fans tend to overvalue one of Dan's Rocker criteria: sincerity. This is the reason that rock's obvious romanticism registers as such a historical breakthrough to them in its move away from the artifice of Tin Pan Alley, Sinatra, and so on. Consider how important it is to the über-rock fan to ascertain that the singer and songwriter are the same person, as if vocal interpretation were not an art in itself. Any movement towards artifice after, say, 1970 can only seem like counter-revolution, especially when such artifice crosses gender lines as well.

David Byrne is surely a Mod in Dan's categorisation. In an interesting twist, on April 17, 2004 Caetano Veloso introduced him at Carnegie Hall as 'the most chic of all rockers'. Any rocker who can be called chic is a total mod.

Here is my nomination for Mod theme song of the decade: 'Michael' by Franz Ferdinand.

5:09 PM, February 10, 2008

Anonymous Anonymous said...

However, the reality of the purported urban/rural axis, as we discussed some time ago in the past, is somewhat troubled by the existence of hyper-urban rockers such as Guns N' Roses and Nirvana, and also the whole vast genus of rural techno, viz. Aphex Twin, definitely a Mod.

Can I just say how comforting I find it that these discussions always devolve into a wistful circle-jerk around the figure of Morrissey?

8:46 AM, February 11, 2008

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your analysis of the sincerity of "rock" fans is right on point. Those of us who lived through those prior turbulent times have been somewhat unwilling (if not entrenched)to accept anything that wanders too far from its' core. However, in our defense we have seen it bastardize over the last several decades.
It was the Arena Rock of the 70s that led to the popularity of Disco. It was a reaction to the garbage of bands like Foreigner, Kansas et al that spurned Disco's rise.Fortunately the New Wave scene of the late 70s & early 80s, that you wrote about so eloquently described, saved humanity from further audio abuse. (No, Disco had no redeeming qualities.)
The late 80s gave rise to the talentless Hair Bands. Fortunately, the music from Seattle & the independent labels came to the rescue.
Yes, sincerity is important.The great musicians and bands all had it, cf., Grace Slick, Santana, Chrissy Hynde, U2, David Byrne. David Bowie never had it.

By the way, I never understood Morrissey's popularity. I would love an explanation.

6:32 PM, February 11, 2008

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Sincerity is sooooo over-rated. In art, at least.

As for the accusation (yes, accusation) of sincerity directed against David Byrne, I refer interested readers to listen to the man's work. Let this line from 'Angels', the second track on his self-titled 1994 album, suffice:
'I am just an advertisement for a version of myself.'

One of David Byrne's greatest achievements as an artist has been to abolish the division between the categories of the earnest and the ironic. If Oscar Wilde were alive today, he would be a David Byrne fan.

12:45 AM, February 12, 2008

Anonymous Anonymous said...

WOW - What a neat idea!
I think they could manage a whole album richly - esp. since like Bowie, Byrne too feeds off others. Case in point, the very rare Byrne album "The Knee Plays" which so eats the vocal approach of Laurie Anderson - and happened to come out some time after my friend saw Byrne in the audience with her attending a Laurie concert in NYC. Years later, Laurie and Lou Reed were married - Eno as well worked with those two. And speaking of Eno, I imagine a good approach for a Byrne/Bowie album might be that of the strange Eno/Cale, "Wrong Way Up" - which marks Eno's return to singing (thank god, for that, at least). That album is almost like a back and forth of two different albums - the Eno tracks and the Cale tracks - almost...

I like your (Jeff's) idea for a possible approach to an EP - then again, Motown covers would be cool too.
OT - just recently I had an idea for an Eno album that really tickled me: "Music for Kids" which would , of course, consists of Eno's rendition of different 'kid's songs' - LOL, you gotta admit, that might be cool - I mean it really would be for kid's - but big kid's might like it too...

5:26 AM, February 12, 2008

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Much as I admire Eno's enormous cranium, I do feel that the generic title for most of his solo albums ought to be Music for People Who Don't Like Music.

5:58 AM, February 12, 2008

Anonymous Anonymous said...

opps - i jumped the gun -- i hadn't notice the direction these comments were going...

"Sincerity" - LOL - you guys are totally nuts! "Sincerity" - i think instead the key is 'conviction' - how convicted the artist is to do what they do - from Plant singing his all time least favorite song, "All of My Love" (oddly one of my favs) to Devo singing "Satisfaction" - Plant had a certain conviction to present songs sincerely, and it worked / whereas Devo's conviction seemed to be to present songs in the most insincere way possible, and it worked - how can Eno's automated mechanical setups create "sincere" music? Conviction, in much of Eno's ambient loops, he's convicted to get it doing something pleasing or interesting (or uninteresting) - and it works.

And re: 42's comment - i am so sorry in advance - but what rock music did you crawl out from under --- popularity of disco was not a reaction - it was merely a trend that gained in popularity - as well, "rock" did not shun it as much as it tried to intergrate it: Zeppelin's "In Through the Out Door" (disco), tracks from Floyd's "The Wall" (disco), Greatful Dead's "Shakedown Street" (produced by Little Feat's Lowell George with a title track all about disco), ETC., ETC....

I won't even mention Zappa (opps)...

well -- i guess i better stop - else I'll end up writing a book...

6:17 AM, February 12, 2008

Anonymous Anonymous said...

opps (again) - billy, you snuck right by me - your comment is understandable (no sarcasm intended) - However, IF you are interested in what I consider one of Eno's most sincere songs, give a listen to the song (that seems out of place) on the album "Wrong Way Up" entitled "The River"

6:35 AM, February 12, 2008

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

I hope the use of 'sincerity' in this comment thread is clear to all readers. In the broadest sense of the word, Andy Warhol was the most sincere artist imaginable. In the narrow sense used here, 'sincerity' is the idea, largely illusory, that an artist's output, particularly the lyrical content of songs, represents what he feels in his heart. Since at least Rauschenberg and Johns, many postwar artists in various media have tried, for a variety of reasons, to redirect affect away from personal expression and towards other ends or, indeed, to suppress it altogether. One result of this genealogy is the so-called Age of Irony.

I am pleased to inform Bahhh that David Byrne's 'The Knee Plays' is no longer rare. It was finally issued on cd last year with bonus material.

The suggestion that Eno record Music for Kids is genius. If he ever records such a work, I will reproduce just so I can buy it for my kids.

1:27 PM, February 12, 2008

Blogger Daniel F said...

Bowie's latest collaboration:


10:23 AM, February 14, 2008

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

The Bowie collaboration that Dan mentioned is the former's contribution to two tracks on Scarlett Johansson's upcoming album of Tom Waits songs. I cannot say I am looking forward to such a thing. (If the latter, i.e. Dan, sang a Tom Waits song with Scarlett Johansson, now that would be interesting.)

I have, however, made an interesting discovery about David Byrne. My suggestion for the Byrne/Bowie cover was Merle Haggard's 'Okie from Muskogee'. Earlier today while searching online for the lyrics specifically to Diplo's mix of M.I.A.'s 'Sunshowers', Google brought me to Radio David Byrne's webpage for 2005.

Despite my lifelong admiration of Byrne's work, I have never developed the habit of tuning in to his internet radio service. (Note to self: get on it.)

Anyway, what struck me is that Haggard's 'Okie from Muskogee' was one of the songs on his December 2005 playlist, 'Rednecks, Racists and Reactionaries: Country Classics'. He says of these songs:
'As much as I complain and rant about the policies of the U.S. government the people of North America have produced an amazing body of popular music — and this is only a sampling of one genre during one era! Something to be truly patriotic about — well, if you like this music, which I do.'

Honestly, I had no idea that he dug the song. If I were prone to exaggeration, I would call it uncanny.

3:48 PM, February 14, 2008

Anonymous Anonymous said...

It would indeed be mightily interesting if Dan did anything with Scarlet Johansson, and I am sure we would all like to have an aural record of it at the very least.

But I find the prospect of Johansson and Bowie singing Tom Waits tremendously exciting.

Charlie Utter in Deadwood reminds me a lot of Tom Waits.

5:42 PM, February 14, 2008

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Another uncanny twist: St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn has announced an anti-war concert. The roster includes several acts, but two are of special interest to readers: David Byrne and Lou Reed. Will they perform together? I will report to my readers after the March 18 performance.

2:23 AM, February 15, 2008

Blogger Daniel F said...

Well, how is the new Byrne-Eno? And where does it fit into your long-promised overview of Byrne's entire canon? Surely with the election in the bag you have time to help those of us looking to you for pop guidance.

6:29 AM, September 18, 2008

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

I will begin my DB series this week when I return to New York.

11:23 AM, September 21, 2008

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