Something really fishy: Doing the voices

Emmanuel Shadrack, this is your life!
This is your life, Mr. Shadrack.
Your life, Mr. Shadrack!
Your LIFE, Shaddy-addy-addy-adrack! Your LIFE!
Billy Liar (film script)

Leon brought together two long-established but rather subterranean strands in David Bowie’s work: characters and voices. Story songs were part of Bowie’s repertoire from the very start; his 1967 “cabaret” album was full of them, and even some of the post-Mod singles he released the previous year have narratives of a sort (“The station seems so cold, the ticket’s in my hand”, or more cheerfully “I feed the pigeons in Trafalgar Square and I dig everything”). Fairly early on he started keeping the stories anonymous – we never learn the name of any of the London Boys, or the Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud – but proper names contined to feature from time to time, from Mary (alias Tommy, alias Eileen) of “She’s Got Medals” to Lorraine of “Watch That Man”, Jessamine of “Always Crashing in the Same Car”, Elizabeth of “African Night Flight”, Vivian of “Bus Stop”, Shirley of “Bleed like a craze, Dad”… it goes on. And his early work – up to about 1974 – was absolutely littered with named fictional characters, especially single-named characters. There are fifteen of them on the 1967 album and its accompanying single (plus another six who also get a surname); as late as 1972 the three songs “Star”, “All the Young Dudes” and “John, I’m only dancing” namecheck ten fictional (or fictionalised) characters between them (as well as Nye Bevan).

In the decade before Leon, Bowie had been simultaneously at a commercial peak and in a creative trough. In the mid-80s he’d tried out a few story songs with characters (“Tumble and Twirl”, “Shining Star”); then, in the harder-edged Tin Machine years, he’d switched to songs which named real people if they named anyone (Madonna, James Dean, Sugar Ray Leonard); The Buddha of Suburbia splits the difference, giving us “Shirley” (and “Charlie”) but also King Kong and Elvis (who, as you may remember, is English). What hadn’t featured since 1974’s unreleased Tommy Tinkrem was characters with both a forename and a surname – and before 1974 you have to go right back to the 1967 album and single, unless you count 1968’s (unreleased and downright obscure) Reverend Raymond Brown. Twenty years later, out they come: Marion Brent and Frankie Mear, allow me to introduce “Mr Touchshriek (of Touchshriek Mail Over and Fantasy)”, “Mr Wolof Bomberg” and “Ramona A. Stone”, to say nothing of “Leon” [Blank], “Baby Grace” [Blue] and the (unnamed) narrator himself, Nathan Adler.

As for the voices, what do “We are Hungry Men”, “Please Mr Gravedigger”, “The Laughing Gnome”, “After All”, “The Bewlay Brothers”, Bowie’s version of “See Emily Play”, “Future Legend”, “Fame”, “Ashes to Ashes”, “Scream like a Baby”, “Magic Dance” and “Untitled No. 1” have in common? (There’s an argument for including “The King of Stamford Hill“. The real heads can also have “Over the wall we go” and “When the fire broke out on the Rio Grande”.) The Gnome is the clue, of course: these are all tracks where Bowie, sometimes unaided but usually with studio assistance, did voices. There are more of them, and over a longer period, than you might expect; this was clearly something he was good at and enjoyed doing.

So that’s part of what Bowie was up to in that studio in Switzerland in 1994. He hadn’t really had fun with voices – on record at least – since Scary Monsters, and he hadn’t done proper characters for absolute yonks. How about letting it all out again?

This was clearly a fairly fluid, unboundaried process. I said in a previous post that, while musicians like Gabrels, Garson and Kızılçay aren’t going to have any difficulty jamming, a writer like Bowie doesn’t improvise songs. That said, what does seem to have happened in a couple of places is something very reminiscent of Billy Fisher’s empty-office improvs in Billy Liar:

The editorial apparatus of the CD leaves nothing to be desired
It leaves nothing to be desired
Nothing to be desired!
Nothing to be desired!
Change your mind changing
It’s your mind changing…

Your mind, Mr Shadrack! It’s your mind changing!

Or take the passage at the end of the “The Enemy is Fragile” suite, which I’ve tried and failed to transcribe several times, and which actually includes the phrase

Leon, lift up your eyes! Your eyes! Your… eyes!

Leon is being addressed here in an operatic baritone, whose exaggerated yet strangulated delivery is oddly reminiscent of later Scott Walker (in a bad way). As far as I can make out, the exhortation is made in the name of “sun-drenched Cecil”, who is possibly being referred to as “Cecil Nostrum” and possibly as “the Inoculus”. At one point the singer seems to want to tell Leon to “be immortal”, but he repeatedly stops at the T after rolling the R extravagantly – “be immorrrrrt!”. Repetitions and variations – including some sloshy Sean Connery-isms – continue for some time. Much of it is mumbled or swamped by the musical backing, but some comes tantalisingly close to being decipherable – for example, at one point the singer repeats a phrase which I hear as “heaven’s hold”, but Chris O’Leary thinks is “tennis balls“. I can at least agree with Chris that after this the song “devolves into sheer babble”.

Improvisation, repetition, free association… babble. Even if it had a title, that song would never be in anyone’s Bowie Top Ten; it was probably more fun to be a part of than it is to listen to. And that suggests one way of looking at the Leon sessions more broadly: it was an outburst of repressed creativity (that Bowie probably hadn’t even realised had been repressed), and it went all over the place – as outbursts tend to. Here a treated voice or two (“say goodnight, Bunny”), there a cut-up lyric (“OK riot”, “breath-filled crowd”, “slump male”), everywhere a sprawling, punning game of word association football. Hence Mr Touchshriek’s sinister stock-in-trade of “ache shells from the she sore”; hence Bowie making lyrics out of an imaginary (?) review of a CD-ROM and his own (Eno-supplied) character profile; hence, even, the leap from Samuel Beckett (supposedly one of the key influences of alt-Bowie’s “live abstract poetry”) to Thomas Becket (“Who has seen this furious man? Who will rid me of this shaking head?”).

On this argument, to say that “Be- immORRRRRT!” and “shun-drenshed Sheshil” are a bit of a mess, considered as lyrics, would be true but would miss the larger point: it’s all a bit of a mess. The heart’s filthy lesson and the rest of the “1. Outside” stuff – modern art’s fascination with human frailty considered as a form of pre-millennial psychosis – came along later and pulled it all into shape: that was why Nathan Adler was investigating Leon Blank, that was what was so menacing about Ramona A. Stone and so creepy about Algeria Touchshriek… The solution to the mystery at the heart of Leon is that there is no mystery at the heart of Leon. There’s nothing to be decoded. (Nothing to be decoded!)

Perhaps – and perhaps there’s a bit more to it than that. Let me take you back to where it all began.



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