Something really fishy: 2. Outside

Exegi monumentum aere perennius [I have created a monument more lasting than bronze]
– Horace, c. 13 BCE

The heart’s filthy lesson falls upon deaf ears
– David Bowie, c. 1994 CE

[Author’s note: the factual details in this post are derived almost exclusively from Chris O’Leary’s indispensable Rebel Rebel and his Website Pushing Ahead of the Dame. The speculations are all mine, though.]

While Leon clearly isn’t a finished work – apart from anything else, Bowie never finished it – I think it does have a certain weird coherence; it is possible to ask what it does, what ideas it plays with, what it’s about. One way in is to ask what Leon‘s not about. The only elements of Leon which saw the light in officially sanctioned forms are those that appear on 1. Outside – so what’s that about, to the extent that it’s not Leon? What are the non-Leon elements of Outside – which songs, and which themes, either predated the Leon improvisations or post-dated them and arose separately?

More of 1. Outside falls into these categories than might immediately be apparent. As well as the six character “segues” (five of which first appeared in Leon), both “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” and “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town” are clearly based on Leon characters and plot strands (“The Hearts Filthy Lesson” even opens with a reference to the “Laugh Hotel“). In fact, the two tracks rather neatly bookend the Leon story – or at least the 1. Outside version of the Leon story. The story ends with “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town”, which provides a brisk summary (“Baby  Grace is the victim, she was fourteen years of age”) before cutting back to the wrongly convicted Leon Blank, in prison, deprived of an artistic (or any other) career, working on his appeal and counting the days as they pass. “The Hearts Filthy Lesson”, meanwhile, sets the stage for Leon by introducing the central character – “Detective Professor” Nathan Adler, specialist in “art crime”, who we hear making increasingly stressed voice notes for a colleague called ‘Paddy’. (Shades of Agent Cooper and the unseen ‘Diane’ – not the only respect in which the Leon story echoes Twin Peaks.) The final, spoken, words are crucial:

Paddy – what a fantastic death abyss! Tell the others.

(The words are unclear in the album version, but there’s a bootlegged studio runthrough which clearly shows that ‘death abyss’ is the phrase – as well as showing how distinctive the rhythm of the final version was, with its casual combination of slamming heavy metal and springy syncopation.)

Why would an art specialist be a connoisseur of the ‘death abyss’? Also, what is the heart’s filthy lesson – and why does it fall on deaf ears (a phrase which I have just mistyped as ‘death ears’ for the second time in succession)? The quotation from Horace points the way. The heart’s filthy lesson is simply that the heart is just that, a heart – a very complex lump of muscle, but a lump of muscle for all that, and as such not something that can be relied on to go on functioning indefinitely. The heart’s filthy lesson, in other words, is that we’re all made of meat and we all die – and it falls on deaf ears because artists have spent the last 2,000 years staging increasingly elaborate denials of this inescapable fact, despite themselves falling victim to it at about the rate you’d expect.

And enter Nathan Adler: how would it be, Bowie asks, if art did a 180-degree turn, from denying the meat body and its death to embracing these things – making them art’s central theme? Considering Chris Burden (one of the sources for “Joe the Lion“), considering (allegedly) self-mutilating artists like Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler, considering Damien Hirt’s bisected cadavers, might it be that this pivot was already happening – and might the growing sense of pre-millennial tension make it happen faster and with more extreme effects? Instead of building palaces of ideas on the denial of the “death abyss” which lurks beneath all human achievement, might art critics and theorists switch to staring into the abyss – and seeking out more and better abysses to stare into?

The Leon story – or at least a Leon story – starts right there, just as it comes to a dead stop in Leon Blank’s prison cell. These two tracks and the six ‘segues’ apart, however, 1. Outside material is surprisingly hard to locate relative to Leon. The male singer of “We Prick You” is enduring an aggressive interrogation and fantasising about sex by way of escape; it may be Leon Blank, but then again it may not. The paired tracks “I’m Deranged” and “No Control” express Bowie’s new-found interest in outsider art – and his longstanding fascination with the relationship between creativity and mental illness – but no connection is suggested with the deranged or out-of-control artist at the hidden heart of the Baby Grace story. Indeed, in another case the artistic theme and the Leon narrative seem to have been mutually exclusive rather than complementary: supposedly Bowie scrapped the Leon-related lyrics to “The Hearts Filthy Lesson” in favour of an alternative set of lyrics about English landscape artists, and had to be persuaded (by Reeves Gabrels) that this wasn’t a good idea. (One such artist was David Bomberg, whose name at least made it into Leon.)

Then there are another four tracks which rework earlier material. “Hallo Spaceboy” derives from an improvisation by Reeves Gabrels and a lyric by Brion Gysin; “Strangers when we meet” first appeared on the (unjustly neglected) Buddha of Suburbia album; the title track “Outside” dates back to Tin Machine; and “Thru’ these architect’s eyes” is one of the two new compositions on 1. Outside which had been begun before the Leon improvisations, and is in any case about architecture (the visual arts again).

So: six Leon character pieces, three songs set in the Leon-verse (stretching a point for “We Prick You”), three songs about art (including “Architect’s Eyes”); and three assorted reworks. But that’s not all; the album (which is rather long, let’s be honest) also includes another four tracks, or two pairs of tracks – or, more precisely, one pair and an overlapping group of three. The second new composition begun before the Leon sessions is “The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)”, whose ungainly title seems to both state and obscure the dark central theme of the Leon/1. Outside story. We’re looking into a created “death abyss” again, but we’re looking through the eyes of the person creating it: somebody driven by a compulsive fusion of an artist’s desire to create and a sadist’s desire to cause pain, resulting in torture and murder experienced (by the artist) as the creation of an artwork. The murderous artist announces and defines himself in “The Voyeur”, after which we hear him at work in the deeply unsettling “Wishful Beginnings”:

Please hide
For the pain must feel like snow
You’re a sorry little girl
Sorry little girl

“Wishful Beginnings” can also be seen as one of a group of three tracks, together with “The Motel” and “A Small Plot of Land”. Following on from the cover version of “Nite Flights” on Black Tie White Noise, these three tracks represent a renewed engagement with Scott Walker – an influence who would continue to fascinate Bowie at least until The Next Day (cf. “Heat”). As of 1994, it should be noted, Scott Walker hadn’t released an album in ten years. Bowie was thus embarking on the Quixotic – or Pierre Menard-like – project of following in Walker’s footsteps, in the knowledge that Walker had moved on in the mean time.

When recording on 1. Outside was finished, Scott Walker did in fact release another album – 1995’s Tilt; it sounds nothing like these songs. That said, the project of treading in Walker’s imagined footprints was surprisingly successful – sonically on the eerie “Wishful Beginnings”, lyrically on all three. Consider:

Poor dunce
Swings through the tunnels
And claws his way

And the silence flies
On its brief flight
A razor sharp crap shoot affair

We flew on the wings
We were deep in the dead air
And this one will never go down

These are extracts from three different songs, each of which includes much that’s more prosaic and less unexpected, but they do suggest that Bowie had put in some serious listening. From the album Nite Flights on, Walker had a unique style – at once declamatory and evasive, lyrical and brutal, epigrammatic and disjointed – and this is, if not that, very much in its neighbourhood.

Some of David Bowie’s best and most interesting work arose out of a collision between different themes or strands of work – which generally indicated that Bowie had got bored with one thing (and/or felt he’d mastered it) and picked up another. Diamond Dogs is the “unwritten 1984 rock opera” album, but that only accounts for three tracks (four if you include the unreleased “Dodo”); it’s also the album on which Bowie takes on contemporary dystopian SF (the opening narration, the title track and “Skeletal Family”); and responds to Lou Reed, who’d just released Berlin (the “Sweet Thing” suite and the alternative “Candidate“); and meditates on being a rock star and the gap which now existed between him and his fans (the two central tracks, “Rebel Rebel” and “Rock and Roll With Me”). Thematically it’s a mess, in other words – you could just about say that “Rebel Rebel’, “Sweet Thing” and “Diamond Dogs” are all ‘street’, while “Diamond Dogs” and “Big Brother” are both ‘sf’, but really, those are three very different streets (and two very different forms of sf). (And I haven’t even mentioned the music, which at one point goes from Isaac Hayes to Jeff Wayne in the space of two tracks.)

Something similar seems to be true of 1. Outside: it’s an album with a group of Leon tracks and a couple of new tracks inspired by Leon; it’s the album where Bowie “did” Scott Walker (“The Motel”, “A Small Plot of Land”, “Wishful Beginnings”); it’s the album where he put some of his thoughts about art and artists, outsider artists included (“I’m Deranged”, “No Control”, “Architect’s Eyes”); and it’s also the album where he parked some other material that he wasn’t finished with, and/or that didn’t seem to belong anywhere else (“Outside”, “Strangers”, “Hallo Spaceboy”). (No wonder it’s so long.)

The question then is where we put “The Voyeur”, taking into account that it was begun before the Leon sessions – and in particular whether we consider it, and “Wishful Beginnings”, to be part of the Leon group. As told in the 1. Outside booklet, the Baby Grace story features an unnamed artist who carries out some form of ritual murder and desecrates the corpse in the cause of art, but I wonder if this represents a later fusion of the story told in Leon with the artistic concerns of 1. Outside. If we put “The Voyeur” and “Wishful Beginnings”, along with “The Hearts Filthy Lesson”, into the “thinking about modern art” section of 1. Outside – “thinking very dark thoughts about modern art”, specifically – and assume that Leon didn’t originally tell the story of a “ritual art murder”, where does that get us? Does taking the ‘Minotaur‘ out of the picture make Leon harder to understand – or easier?

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