The Man Who Sold the World (8 page)

BOOK: The Man Who Sold the World

Bowie channeled what he had learned from Kemp into a brief but compelling reincarnation as a solo mime artiste at several 1968 rock concerts. He had written a short sketch titled “The Mask,” in which—symbolically, in light of Bowie's own shifts of identity—a performer becomes so closely attached to a stage disguise that his public can no longer distinguish man from mask. The piece ends with the performer being strangled by the mask, a symbolic fate that haunted Bowie for much of the seventies as his various images threatened to overshadow his own fragile identity. His most ambitious venture into mime also betrayed his interest in Tibetan Buddhism. “Jetsun and the Eagle” was a twelve-minute performance (a lifetime for a solo mime artiste in front of a rock audience) inspired by the Chinese communist “rape” of Tibet, prompting outraged dissent from Marxist traditionalists in the stalls.

The combination of Buddhist transcendence and Kemp's raw connection with emotion plainly unlocked Bowie's creativity in late 1967 and early 1968. Besides a steady output of songs, many of which remain unheard to this day, he wrote the script for a radio play titled
The Champion Flower Grower
, which was rejected by the BBC, and also composed the skeleton of a rock opera,
Ernie Johnson
[A51], about a suicide party. Yet this was not the stuff of financial success, a dream that Pitt—and Bowie, when he was in Pitt's presence—continued to pursue. The two men prepared a tentative track listing for a second album, centered once more around character-based vignettes, despite their awareness that Decca's enthusiasm for Bowie had dimmed markedly. At the same time, Tony Visconti had emerged as a creative foil for Bowie's music. “What interested me in the first place was hearing David's demos, which were incredible,” he recalled. “He played all the guitars, he played his own bass, he did his backing vocals.” Visconti produced several Bowie tracks that were offered to Decca as potential singles, but all of them were rejected. Meanwhile, the singer maintained at least the veneer of enthusiasm for a significant rebranding of his career, which would involve abandoning all the trappings of rock in favor of a hip, upwardly mobile, and effervescently young approach to cabaret (see [A54]). Would the David Bowie whose mind and body were being schooled by Lindsay Kemp, or the David Bowie who dreamed of suicide parties, really have been content to package himself as Carnaby Street's rival to Andy Williams? The truth is that Bowie was prepared to follow any path that seemed to offer him a destination.

Indeed, rather than offering the public one solid, unmistakable product, the Bowie of 1968 was a veritable supermarket of fleeting passions and wild fancies. Recognizing that the most efficient way of capturing this mercurial talent might be to commission a TV special called something like
The Many Faces of David Bowie
, Kenneth Pitt began to test enthusiasm in the television industry for a showcase that would sell his star-in-the-making. To be comprehensive, such a project would need to offer a dozen different Bowies: the Anthony Newley imitator, the soul/blues Mod, the Kinks-inspired commentator on contemporary life, the avant-garde rock experimentalist, the crooner, the Edwardian revivalist, the purveyor of children's and novelty tunes, the composer of boutique pop songs, the mime artiste, the actor, the folk musician, and the costar of a Simon & Garfunkel tribute act.

These final two identities both emerged late in 1968, as Bowie, his girlfriend Hermione Farthingale, and guitarist/vocalist Tony Hill (swiftly replaced by John Hutchinson) formed a trio called Turquoise, in honor of Kemp's
Pierrot in Turquoise
. Their original intention was to merge folk in the Peter, Paul and Mary tradition (square, in other words, but with the faint air of hipness) with poetry and mime, in the spirit of counterculture poetry/music clubs across the country. Within a couple of weeks, Turquoise became Feathers, their repertoire stretching from Bowie originals to songs by the Belgian composer Jacques Brel, the Canadian poet Leonard Cohen, and the Byrds.

Feathers survived for less than four months, but events during their brief life span established Bowie's direction for the decade ahead. At a September 1968 show at the Roundhouse in London, they were watched by a young American named Mary Angela “Angie” Barnett, who briefly met Bowie after the performance. Accompanying Barnett was Calvin Mark Lee, shortly to join the staff of Mercury Records, whose enthusiasm for Bowie's music (and appearance) would prove to be crucial for the singer's career.

Meanwhile, Pitt's energetic pursuit of Bowie's TV showcase had ended in failure, so he opted to pursue a lower-budget effort himself. Under the working title of
The David Bowie Show
, it limited Bowie's “faces” by excluding his more experimental leanings and concentrating on material he had already recorded for Deram. Feathers appeared in several of the brief segments that made up the program, while Bowie also offered his well-practiced mime routine. Pitt encouraged Bowie to compose one additional song in a contemporary vein, perhaps to bolster his client's enthusiasm for this strangely retrospective project. Bowie began to explore a scenario based loosely on America's attempts to land a man on the moon.

Gradually, Bowie's options were narrowing. Late in the filming, his relationship with Farthingale disintegrated, instantly reducing Feathers to the Simon & Garfunkel–inspired duo of Bowie & Hutchinson. His efforts to secure a major role in the British war comedy
The Virgin Soldiers
had ended in rejection, though the director let Bowie appear on-screen for a handful of frames as an anonymous extra. Lindsay Kemp was launching a new mime vehicle solely for himself and his boyfriend, Jack Birkett. Established stars were showing a marked reluctance to cover Bowie's songs, despite all efforts by his publishers to promote him as the British equivalent of Burt Bacharach (see the Appendix entries for A43/A45/A54). Pitt's cabaret schemes had been sunk by a lack of enthusiasm from entrepreneurs and singers alike. Of the dozen Bowie “faces” available to Pitt as
The David Bowie Show
was hatched, only the duo with Hutchinson seemed to carry any significant commercial promise. Pitt, however, had underestimated the power of the song that Bowie had penned specifically for the show: “Space Oddity” [1].



(Bowie) [see also 177]

Initially recorded February 1969;
Love You Till Tuesday
film. Demo recorded March 1969;
David Bowie (Deluxe Edition)
CD. Re-recorded June 1969; single A-side. Italian vocals overdubbed December 1969; Italian single A-side

“Imagine the 1990 version of
All Our Yesterdays
with ‘Space Oddity' being used in the way they use ‘Roll Out the Barrel' in documentaries about the First World War now,” David Bowie exclaimed on the eve of mankind's first steps on the moon. “What a groove!” He was being unduly cautious: the BBC first broadcast “Space Oddity” during its television coverage of the moon landing on July 20, 1969. “I want it to be the first anthem of the Moon,” Bowie had said, “play it as they hoist the flag, and all that.” In the same interview, he offered a less idealistic view: “I suppose it's an antidote to space fever, really.”

That “space fever” has barely survived forty years of dampened expectations. In January 1967, author John Michell (who was convinced that the Age of Aquarius would be marked by visits from flying saucers) wrote impatiently: “Some event is awaited which will inspire us with a new ideal and open our minds to a further realization of our potential. What form this event will take is impossible to say, for it will involve us in experiences and visions for which we lack any precedent and cannot therefore express in language or even in thought.” So staggering to the mind was the concept that humans could walk on the surface of a dead planet 240,000 miles away that the successful mission of Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins in July 1969 was widely greeted as our species' single greatest achievement. Yet this was not a bloodless triumph: a few days after Michell had dreamed of the unprecedented, the initial Apollo crew of three had been burned to death inside a space capsule on the launchpad in Florida.

“If we die, we want people to accept it,” said one of those astronauts in 1965. “We are in a risky business and we hope that if anything happens to us it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.” Had he lived, Gus Grissom might have revised his opinion. The ultimate tragedy of the Apollo program was that space was conquered, but proved to be a cul-de-sac. Despite the initial glory of Apollo 11, and the near disaster of Apollo 13, manned trips to the moon failed to hold the American imagination, or—amid a global recession—justify the staggering expense. After Apollo 17 returned safely in December 1972, further missions were canceled. Physically and psychologically, the program led nowhere; yet it had achieved its seldom-voiced objective, of demonstrating to the world that Western democracy could outstrip the repressive utopianism of Soviet Russia, which had pledged to beat America to the lunar surface.

Within months of the Apollo 11 landing, there were reports that American scientists were investigating whether a nuclear bomb could be exploded on the moon, and the seismic results studied, as a means of determining the planet's makeup. True or not, the story reinforced the mistrust felt by many in the Western counterculture about this triumph of the capitalist will. Just before Apollo 11 was launched, underground journalist Alex Gross complained: “the people running the space programme have jumped into something so big that not even they are able to cope with it psychologically, they haven't a clue what the effects of landing on the Moon will be. . . . [They] are in utter and absolute awe before the enormity of space and the challenge it presents to all earthbound preconceptions.” Assigned to cover Apollo for
magazine, American novelist Norman Mailer noted how all metaphysical concerns about the mission were masked in scientific sterility designed to excise emotion from the quest. “The publicity image of a spaceman at work is of an automaton rather than a human being,” David Bowie said in July 1969. “My Major Tom is nothing if not a human being.” As such, he was as much an outsider as Bowie had been from the hedonistic optimism of late sixties pop culture, a distance he had already declared in songs such as “The London Boys” [A21] and “Join the Gang” [A27].

“It's only a pop song, after all,” Bowie said dismissively of “Space Oddity” in November 1969, but it signaled his immunity to “space fever,” and in a wider sense his alienation from the collective fantasy—over- and underground—that mankind was embarked on a voyage toward progress and enlightenment. Greeting the dawn of 1969, the London underground newspaper
had wondered: “The question for us now is whether we can make as much progress inside our own heads and the heads of our friends to lay the foundations for an intergalactic life more meaningful than our present earthbound condition.” Bowie's answer in “Space Oddity” (written shortly after that editorial appeared in a paper that he read avidly) was that life on the moon, or en route to the stars, was just as hollow as it was at home. At the moment when mankind had transcended its “present earthbound condition,” Bowie was already inhabiting the world of the future decade, in which space travel would be a desperately expensive and ultimately anachronistic irrelevance.

The “Space Oddity” scenario of an astronaut marooned in space was commonplace in science fiction: three of the tales in Ray Bradbury's collection
The Illustrated Man
, already an influence on Bowie's “Karma Man” [A48], explored variations on this theme. It was cemented in the mind of Bowie's generation by Stanley Kubrick's film
2001: A Space Odyssey
, the clear source for the song's title.
, space voyagers were threatened and betrayed by their ship's computer, “Hal.” Bowie has always described the film as the primary influence on “Space Oddity”: “I related to the sense of isolation,” he explained. A less celebrated inspiration may have been a BBC-TV drama titled
Beach Head
, broadcast as the song was being written, which portrayed the unrelenting ennui of a space pilot, anticipating the alienation that haunts “Major Tom.” In either case, the scenario represented a central theme of the existential literature—Camus, Sartre, Genet—that Bowie had devoured in recent years: an individual's alienation from society, and from himself. Like the astronauts on the moon, Major Tom could look back at earth and reflect on its perilous, insignificant place in the heavens.

Bowie's alienation from his career, which had apparently stalled in the summer of 1968, had exhausted his previously prolific output of songs. Now facing a TV special for which there was no guaranteed audience, and which was based around material he'd written more than a year earlier, he was encouraged by his manager, Kenneth Pitt, to pen “a very special piece of material that would dramatically demonstrate David's remarkable inventiveness and would probably be the high spot of the production.” The TV special's director, Malcolm Thomson, claimed that he and his girlfriend Susie Mercer contributed ideas to the songwriting process; likewise Bowie's musical partner John Hutchinson took credit for refining the structure of the song. Meanwhile, Marc Bolan—himself an inveterate magpie—insisted that “I wrote part of ‘Space Oddity,' and it was me who suggested that he sang the song like the Bee Gees.” “ ‘Space Oddity' was a Bee Gees type song,” Hutchinson agreed. “David knew it, and he said so at the time.” Though there were vague similarities to the structure of the Bee Gees' first hit, “New York Mining Disaster 1941,” the comparison owed more to the haunting atmosphere of both songs, in which minor chords were left to hover at the end of the opening lines, leaving the listener uncertain where they might touch down.
The “Space Oddity” chords may have been determined by Hutchinson, as Bowie originally conceived the melody using a Stylophone, a newly marketed electronic keyboard aimed at (affluent) children. Its unmistakable buzz was a striking feature on the final record.

Hutchinson's contribution was apparent from the floating Fmaj7
that opened the song, portraying the astronaut adrift in space. He must surely have suggested the almost ethereal sequence of “ninth” chords that suggested the spaceman hanging free, setting up the final verse in which the spaceship had taken control of its occupant. This interlude, filled on the record by a Mick Wayne guitar solo that seemed to be testing out the walls of Major Tom's prison, was introduced by a dramatic quartet of “barre” chords.
They were reminiscent of similar motifs used in Jimmy Webb's songwriting during 1967–68, notably on the Fifth Dimension's “Carpet Man,” one of the period's more extravagant pop productions. Throughout, Paul Buckmaster's string arrangement cast an uneasy shadow: it evoked the unsettling modernist music written in Vienna in the early years of the century, against the softer and more conventionally melodic “string” parts contributed by Rick Wakeman's Mellotron.

The lyrical content of the song was a more authentic reflection of its creator, especially when Bowie spotlighted the power of the media and the advertising industry to reach out into space and demand to own a stake in a man who was exiled from the rest of humanity. There was a cheeky reference to another study of alienation, as Bowie borrowed a musical motif (the rising tone of the “liftoff” sequence) from the Beatles' “A Day in the Life.” And note also the strange vocabulary of the radio transmissions between earth and space—Ground Control instead of Mission Control, “engines on” for “ignition,” and the unmilitary combination of rank (Major) and first name (Tom). But then Bowie never claimed that “Space Oddity” was anything other than a fiction, in which orthodoxy didn't apply.

Between February 1969, when the song was taped for the
Love You Till Tuesday
film, and June, when the single was recorded, “Space Oddity” underwent one crucial change. In February, and on the subsequent demo session, it was a duet performance by Bowie and Hutchinson—a dialogue, effectively, with Hutchinson on the ground (supported by Bowie's high unison or harmony) and Bowie in space. Ninety seconds passed before Major Tom answered Ground Control's urgent inquiries and Bowie's voice was heard in eerie solitude.

A month later, the act known as “David Bowie + Hutch” made a demo tape of ten songs
: though eight of the ten were written by Bowie, the intention was clearly to market them as a duo, mirroring Simon & Garfunkel in the distinction between songwriter (Bowie/Simon) and arranger (Hutchinson/Garfunkel). Only when financial problems forced Hutchinson to leave London around April 1969 did David Bowie become, once more, a solo act, in time to sign a deal with Philips/Mercury Records in June. There he recorded this remarkably accomplished song in a voice colored by his respect for the work of John Lennon; later, under request from the company's Italian office, he struggled manfully with the demands of a translation in that language, discovering only after the event that the rewritten words—the Italian title meant “Lonely Boy, Lonely Girl”—had nothing to do with space (or oddities) at all.

Separating those two recording sessions was a long period of frustration, in which “Space Oddity” was deemed to be too controversial for prime-time radio airplay when flesh-and-blood astronauts were risking their lives, and then, finally, commercial acceptance, the dream that Bowie had been pursuing since 1963. Although America remained immune to the single's charms until 1972, British sales took the record to No. 5 in the national chart. Only then did Bowie discover that success did not guarantee satisfaction or self-esteem.

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