The Man Who Sold the World (10 page)

BOOK: The Man Who Sold the World




Recorded June 1969; single B-side. Re-recorded August 1969;
David Bowie [Space Oddity]

The first Arts Lab was founded by Jim Haynes in Drury Lane, London. It was, Haynes declared, “an ‘energy centre' where anything can happen depending upon the needs of the people running each individual Lab and the characteristics of the building. A Lab is a non-Institution . . . a Lab's boundaries should be limitless.” The venue hosted art exhibitions by Yoko Ono and John Lennon, among many other happenings, and attracted curious visitors from across London. Among them was David Bowie, who by spring 1969 was living with underground journalist Mary Finnigan in Beckenham. As the Arts Lab ethic spread across the country, they launched a local venture at a pub in Beckenham High Street: a Folk Lab, initially, designed as a fund-raising focus for a wider Arts Lab collective. As a demonstration of Bowie's almost invisible profile as a musician, he and Finnigan listed their home phone number in underground newspaper advertisements for their enterprise.

“The plan is to turn on the adults by spearheading the project at children,” Finnigan announced. “Initially, we will run Saturday morning poetry, music and mime scenes for children, gradually expanding to include theatre projects for kids.” Bowie, she said, “is enthusiastic about teaching mime, music and drama to kids.” His affinity with children was apparent from songs such as “There Is a Happy Land” [A25] and “When I'm Five” [A53]; his own experience of childhood was more ambiguous. At twenty-two, he admitted that “I feel almost middle-aged physically. I often regret not leading a more normal teenage life.”

His idealism and regret informed the parable of the “Wild-Eyed Boy from Freecloud”: an innocent boy is threatened with hanging by his fellow citizens and is rescued by the mountain on which he lives, which destroys the village to save his life. “Everything the boy says is taken the wrong way,” Bowie explained, “both by those who fear him and those who love him. I suppose in a way he's rather a prophet-figure.” The song added another dimension: the boy's persecution was sparked by a fear that his madness might be contagious. Allowed to speak, though, the boy uttered nothing more insane than a cry of universal humanity: the hippie equivalent of Ziggy Stardust's “you're not alone” [61]. Twenty years later, Bowie reflected: “I always felt I was on the edge of events, the fringe of things, and left out. A lot of my characters in those early years seem to revolve around that one feeling.”

“Wild-Eyed Boy from Freecloud” was a courageous attempt to deal with this isolation on an almost operatic scale. Trapped in his prison, the boy was represented by the endless circularity of a D chord with a descending root, from which there was no escape; even a key shift led inexorably back down the scale to captivity. As the scene cut to the mountain, announced with a strident C major chord, the ground began to slide, and after a series of unexpected key changes, Bowie proclaimed the boy's apparent freedom with a defiant proclamation of identity. Then the action began to race, with a flurry of abrupt tonic/subdominant and tonic/relative-minor chord changes—before, inexorably, the initial theme returned, to signal that hope had died. The melody kept close to the action, the boy's plaintive cry reaching to Bowie's familiar high G, and then being knocked back to earth.

In its initial reading, the song was played out starkly against acoustic guitar and an almost aggressive, chopping cello played by Paul Buckmaster. When re-recorded for the
David Bowie
LP, it was left to gasp beneath an epic arrangement (“I heard a Wagnerian orchestra in my head,” admitted producer Tony Visconti), tonally rich and extravagant to the point that it sapped the drama from the story. This time Bowie's voice cracked emotionally on the final line, but it was a gesture too far, the wave of an actor's hand.

The spare original arrangement was issued as the B-side to “Space Oddity” [1] on July 11, 1969. “Never have I been so flipped out about a single,” enthused one of Mercury Records' US executives. But he warned: “I've been quite concerned about the record's ending. I've been worried that some programmers might not play it, what with the space shot and all.” In America, the single's negative slant on the space mission smothered its commercial prospects; in Britain it took seven weeks to make the Top 50 sales chart. By then, Bowie's enthusiasm for his success had been jolted by the unexpected death of his father on August 5. “David's career would have turned out differently had his father lived,” Kenneth Pitt reflected later. “[John Jones] would have [been] the moderating influence David needed.”




Recorded August–September 1969;
David Bowie [Space Oddity]

Written almost simultaneously, “Cygnet Committee” and “Memory of a Free Festival” [9] documented the extremes of Bowie's reaction to the hippie movement, and his Arts Lab experiment as a microcosm of that ideal. “Here we are in Beckenham,” he said as “Space Oddity” [1] was released, “with a group of people creating their own momentum without the slightest concern for attitudes, tradition or pre-ordained moralities. It's alive, healthy and new, and it matters to me more than anything else.” In September, as “Space Oddity” finally charted, three months after it was released, he was still suffused with optimism: “I run an Arts Lab which is my chief occupation. I think it's the best in the country. There isn't one pseud involved. All the people are real—like labourers or bank clerks.” Yet by the end of the month he had completed this long, near-hysterical account of betrayal, disillusion, greed, and defiant individualism, which completed one side of his album, while his radiant-eyed account of the Arts Lab festival closed the other.

By November, he was declaring that the hippie movement was dead,
its followers “materialistic and selfish.” “These people,” he said dismissively, “they're so apathetic, so lethargic. The laziest people I've met in my life.” Hippies were no more motivated than anyone else: everyone was “crying out for a leader.” Like Bob Dylan, who was fighting off all attempts to co-opt him as the figurehead of a countercultural revolution, Bowie wanted nothing more than to be allowed to live. That single word, screeched over and over like a victim's final cry for help, provided the climax to a song that cast off the comfortable slogans of the counterculture, the catchphrases of the Beatles or the MC5 that were bandied around the underground press as gestures of solidarity. A year later, in a song Bowie much admired (“God”), John Lennon compressed the death of idealism into a single phrase: “The dream is over.” Bowie, still grieving for Hermione and his recently deceased father, struggling to adjust to the commercial recognition that had been his sole aim since 1963, needed more than nine minutes to spit out the emotional debris.
In interviews before his father's death, Bowie talked warmly of what “we” could achieve with the Arts Lab. After his bereavement, Bowie was a defiantly singular “I.”

His vehicle, ironically, was a remnant of the dream, as—following a brief prelude, which sounded as if the musicians were uncurling themselves after long hibernation—“Cygnet Committee” was constructed around the delicate skeleton of “Lover to the Dawn” [6]. Its first two sections were retained intact, with another paean to Hermione fleshing out the previously instrumental opening. Once more, Bowie was “The Thinker,”
but now he eschewed romance in favor of a bitter excoriation of all those who had drained his energy, sapped his will, even exhausted his money: the price of his fame. From a defiant movement through the key of F, a rhythm guitar stabbing the third beat of every bar, Bowie gave way to self-pity, unloading himself across the familiar I-vi-IV-V chord progression (in C) that underpinned a thousand maudlin fifties teen ballads.

And then the dance began again, with Hermione recollected as a touchstone of truth, before the betrayed Thinker was replaced by the voice of the crowd, ungrateful and unworthy, revealing their subterfuge like pantomime villains. Bowie's language grew even more bombastic, passion replacing poetry, adding up to total condemnation of the values of the counterculture. One by one, the hollow slogans of the failed revolution were tossed aside, Bowie ranting like a robot dictator, the band chaotic in their excitement, an electronically treated harpsichord swaying from side to side across the stereo spectrum.

Finally, Bowie escaped the tight four-chord restraints of the song with a desperate cry for freedom: “Live!” He had finally shed his illusions: having dominated his songwriting for months, Hermione vanished from his landscape. Even before he had become a star, Bowie had glimpsed the cannibalistic relationship between leader and followers, idol and fans, guru and disciples. Yet he was still drawn toward pursuing fame, influence, the trappings of a god—a tension that would haunt the decade ahead.




Recorded September 1969;
David Bowie [Space Oddity]
LP. Re-recorded March/April 1970; single A/B-sides

Five days after his father's funeral, when he was “in a completely catatonic state,” Bowie performed at the Growth Summer Festival and Free Concert in Beckenham. It was the epitome of countercultural eclecticism: besides an array of folk and rock musicians, the event offered “a barbecue, exotic tea stall, poster & original artwork stall, Transmutation paper & magazine shop, candy floss, street theatre, puppet theatre, jewellery & ceramics stall, clothes shop, fuzz-nut shy, assault course, Tibetan shop, Culpepper herb and food stall, etc.” The Beckenham Arts Lab collective (alias Growth) had expanded in four months from a sparsely attended folk club in the back room of a pub to a celebration of summer optimism filling a local park.

Growth organizer Mary Finnigan recalled that Bowie was “vile” that day, castigating his fellow activists as “mercenary pigs” because they had allowed the stalls to raise money for their activities—which was the avowed aim of the festival. “He hated us for it,” she said, “and I hated him.”

Yet within three weeks Bowie had written and recorded “Memory of a Free Festival,” the anthemic climax to his second album. “We go out on an air of optimism, which I believe in,” he explained. “I wrote this after the Beckenham Festival, when I was very happy.” What he created was a fantasy, a melding of other people's experiences of Beckenham with news reports of the Woodstock gathering in upstate New York that same weekend, filtered through a science fiction sensibility that passed control of earthly happiness from the hippies to visitors from the stars. It climaxed in a simple chant, inspired by the elongated ending of the Beatles' “Hey Jude” the previous year, which celebrated the arrival of the Sun Machine, inaugurating a party that would no doubt stretch out into the galaxies.

Amid the celebration, however, Bowie acknowledged that this was all fiction—one with which he was prepared to play along, but a simulacrum of reality, nonetheless. Then he immersed himself in the innocence of fantasy, among Venusians, Peter (Pan?), and the rest, with people passing bliss among the crowds, and Bowie himself fixed on the overpowering Buddhist enlightenment of satori. As a growing chorus joined his anthem to the Sun Machine, he let the myth run free, his own memory of a particular free festival fading into the “summer's end” of 1960s idealism.

This required a giant leap of faith, so it was apt that the music began with what sounded like an uncertain church organ.
To hint that we were in a dreamworld, the organ (and Bowie's voice) drifted very slowly back and forth between the stereo speakers. At the height of the fairy tale, with tall Venusians mingling in the crowd, Bowie soared like a choirboy to a top A. Then there was a flurry of sound, an unthreatening counterpart to the anarchic cacophony of the Beatles' “Revolution 9,” before a fuzz bass stabilized the tempo and Bowie announced the joyous coming of the sun.

In the mythology of the 1960s, Woodstock was followed by the shambolic Altamont festival in December 1969; the moon landing of July led to the near disaster of Apollo 13 in April 1970; and, after Bowie was pulled onto the pop circuit to promote “Space Oddity,” the Beckenham Arts Lab folded back into a folk club, and then vanished, as did the national movement inspired by Drury Lane. When “The Prettiest Star” [13] failed to extend his career as a pop star, his record company suggested that he should re-record “Free Festival” as a single for the very different summer of 1970.

It was a significant moment in Bowie's career: his first recording session with guitarist Mick Ronson, his creative foil for the next three years. With the song now split across both sides of a single, Ronson dominated the finale, his Eric Clapton–inspired tone subordinating the chorus choir. Earlier, he had taken his turn as each instrument slowly entered the scene, and an instrumental flourish (a signal of allegiance to progressive rock, not pop) marked the end of each verse. But the most significant change came from Bowie himself: the vulnerable idealist of 1969 was now a recognizable prototype for Ziggy Stardust at his most swaggering, drifting into a phrase or two in mock Cockney as a proud badge of identity, rather than a throwback to the music hall as in 1967. Ironically, while the song was now tighter and more focused than before, it appeared at a time when rock festivals were torn between chaos and commercialism, and bliss was no longer being passed among the crowd.

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