Something really fishy: The chrome

1. We’ll creep together

If Leon isn’t about art, flesh and the millennium (as its traces on 1. Outside would suggest), and if it is about something – not just a free-wheeling verbal jam session punctuated by recordings of crowd noise – then… what?

I’d suggest that the lyrics evoke a number of weird and problematic scenarios, each of which had fascinated Bowie for years at a time and some of which fascinated him now. Picture a charismatic leader, someone who could summon thousands of willing volunteers to fight for him and – just as importantly – hold millions of spectators in passive, fascinated thrall, each one convinced that they had a personal relationship with the great one. (Imagine that, eh?) Picture individuals so powerful, and/or so glamorous and charismatic, that they could bend others to their will without compunction, exploiting and even destroying young, innocent victims. Picture an art scene whose high-status experts and connoisseurs combine impeccable taste with utter creative exhaustion, and whose every innovation comes from the street – from artists and practitioners who have no savoir-faire but have creative energy to burn; imagine the role of fixers and impresarios in a scene like that. (Alternatively, picture a pop scene… Bowie once characterised 1. Outside as a follow-up to “Please, Mr Gravedigger” – and perhaps Leon is the follow-up to “Join the Gang”.) Picture a drug which seems to admit users to another, better, reality, and which progressively occupies their lives and soaks up their will to the point of swallowing them up completely. And picture an individual who gets caught up in the wheels of one, or more than one, of these glittering but brutally exploitative relationships, and whose mind and identity come unglued as a result.

Got all that? Now, imagine that they’re all the same thing. Imagine that “art scene” and “drug” and “political leader” aren’t quite what those words usually mean, but…

…the Internet.

Yes, I know. But bear in mind that the Leon sessions took place in 1994 – the first graphical Web browser was only released that year. Bowie was a very early adopter. And it’s probably fair to say that what he was envisaging was something more like the immersive 3D fantasy of “cyberspace” – some kind of combination of VR/AR, Second Life and Google Earth – than the ubiquitous but stubbornly screen- and text-based medium we now know. There, in cyberspace, new charismatic leaders could recruit devoted followers from around the world, and attract an unlimitedly vast audience of spectators; new art-forms could arise from every inner city on the planet and be instantaneously communicated to the arbiters of taste, or else bypass them and go direct to a world-wide audience; while the experience of cyberspace itself might become a drug like no other. Culture would change; language would change; even the way people think would change, accelerating to match the speed of computing – and perhaps going beyond the capacities of the unaided human brain. Indeed, this world would create untold new opportunities for people to go astray, to lose their minds or throw away their lives – and for unscrupulous people to exploit and debauch the innocent.

This, I think, is the world of Leon. Here, for example, are the second passage of text in the “Leon Takes Us Outside” suite, and an extract from the third:

The first time that I felt your grace, a tear [meaning ‘rip’] ran down my cheek
The first time that I saw the boil – put it on the neck…

Last time I saw him he was standing by a pile of canteloupes under the lamplight. I look up at the blood-red sky and I saw the words ‘Ramona A. Stone’. As sure as you can see the nose on my face, or the graze on my arm, or the boil on my neck…

Setting aside the weird fascination with boils, what’s going on here? When would you put a boil on someone’s neck, and when would a rip run down your cheek? I’m picturing avatar construction, glitching slightly: ‘my’ cheek is the cheek of my Street Fighter, my Second Life skin, my Mii. (1994, ladies and gentlemen.) And when do you see a red sky with writing in it, as clear as the nose on your face? This is Augmented Reality territory, I think – what we’d now (after Pokemon Go) consider a gamification of everyday life. Only without the game, or – apparently – the screen to see it all on, or through. This seems like a massive leap beyond the technology we know, but it’s worth remembering that the technology we know wasn’t a reference point in 1994: smart phones, and tablets with cameras and Internet connectivity, were still a long way off. Instead, the narrative of Leon seems to see cyberspace as something you enter, or jack into, in person – perhaps through drugs, perhaps through some kind of implant like Larry Niven’s drouds (consider Ramona A. Stone’s “MIDI-life crisis”).

And, as with drugs, you can get into it, or you can get deep into it. I think this is the significance of the ‘blood-red sky’, and the pile of canteloupes for that matter: the speaker is in, but he’s still walking around this world as well. Go deeper – replace AR with VR, give up on the physical world altogether in favour of an immersive, 3D experience of cyberspace – and something else happens to the sky:

The babies left home
And the sky’s made of chrome

We’ll creep together, you and I
Under a bloodless chrome sky

From a blood-red sky to a bloodless ‘chrome’ sky – and on to vague but ominous statements such as “this is the chrome” and “it’ll end in chrome”… But why “chrome”?

2. Leon: a glossary in three parts

Computing terminology

NB With few exceptions, these terms do not have these definitions when they are used in Leon.

challenge/response systems: “An authentication method used to prove the identity of a user logging into the network.” (PC Mag Encyclopedia)
crawler: “a program that searches for information on the Web … widely used by Web search engines to index all the pages on a site by following the links from page to page” [NB does not appear in Leon; see creep]
daemon: “a Unix/Linux program that executes in the background ready to perform an operation when required”
domain name server: a server within the Domain Name System (DNS), “the Internet’s system for converting alphabetic names into numeric IP addresses … a hierarchy of duplicated database servers worldwide”
finger hacker: someone who acquires passwords, PINs etc by watching the finger movements of people entering them; see shoulder surfer
information superhighway: “A proposed high-speed communications system that was touted by the Clinton/Gore administration [1993-2000] to enhance education in America in the 21st century … with the explosion of the Web, the Internet became the information superhighway whether it was ready for it or not.”
MIDI: “a standard protocol for the interchange of musical information between musical instruments, synthesizers and computers”
packet sniffer: “software that captures packets transmitted in a network for routine inspection and problem detection”
router: “device that forwards data from one network to another”
shoulder surfer: someone who “[looks] over someone’s shoulder to obtain passwords, PINs and other security codes being entered”; see finger hacker
silicone chip: misspelling and/or mispronunciation of “silicon chip”
swapper: operating system software responsible for “replacing one segment of a program in memory (RAM) with another part of the program and restoring it back to the original if required”
update daemon: see daemon
window: delimited area of a computer screen, element of a graphical user interface

SF terminology

brain patch: a permanent upgrade to the brain enabling direct access to cyberspace; also soul patch
chrome: apparently a one-word synonym for immersive cyberspace, seen as a powerful and seductive experience but liable to drain the life of anyone who strayed into it. Evokes William Gibson and possibly Frank Zappa.
creep: always ‘together’ (the phrase is used by four different characters); apparently a gratifying shared experience of venturing into cyberspace. Possibly an alternative/garbled version of ‘crawl’ (cf. crawler)
interest drugs: psychotropic drugs tending to accelerate mental processes; used with brain patch and mind filters
magic cookies: see interest drugs
mind filters: either synonymous with brain patch, or a semi-permanent intermediate stage between interest drugs and brain patch
soul patch: see brain patch

Other (possibly derived from cut-ups/Verbasizer)

anxiety descending: unclear why anxiety should descend, unless it’s an image of anxiety descending on somebody
breath-filled crowd: presumably a crowd of people who are present in person rather than having sent their avatars
don’t-wanna bitch: a reluctant female
fly boys: probaby a term of approval
freckham: “I’ve hid my hard skin under a freckham sky”; unknown
gadives: “I feel like a machine that cannot be cranked any more. My gadives are broken and bent”; unknown
hard skin: something that may be eaten or hidden; associated with beauty (which Nathan Adler characterises as “a deep skin” and “a stone in my flesh”); possibly a shameful reminder of the body’s physicality(?)
Laugh Hotel: apparently a venue where art dealers / talent scouts / abusers can pick up fresh talent
Leek Soldiers: unclear; see Nut Soldiers
mumble slouch unreal: this phrase is used by two different characters, but the sense and even the wording is uncertain
Nut Soldiers: unclear; see Leek Soldiers
OK riot: a riot which is seen as safe(?), possibly because participants are not physically present(?); compare breath-filled crowd
slump male: an ageing, burnt-out male
small friends: contacts who facilitate a journey into cyberspace (see creep); possibly avatars of an exploiter who stands to gain from new recruits, possibly autonomous software agents (see daemon)

3. A cast of thousands

There’s no way to be sure how many characters there are in Leon. On one run-through, noting down a new character every time I heard a voice I couldn’t be sure I’d heard before, I got up to 28; this didn’t include any ‘chorus’ voices, such as the ones which join in on “Nothing to be desired”, so presumably a really scrupulous count would return a total in the 30s. A more parsimonious accounting – making a few assumptions about continuing characters and relegating those chorus voices to anonymity – gives a figure in the mid-teens; still quite a few, although several only have one appearance or even one line. I should also acknowledge that how some of the characters relate to the storyline is less than clear; sometimes, perhaps, it really was just Bowie having fun doing voices. Here’s what I’ve got, though, listed in order of appearance but with minor characters given separately.

Major characters

Leon Blank: a young (performance?) artist who comes to the attention of Ramona A. Stone and begins a relationship with her; he is then enlisted by her (or by the Director) to carry out a killing, or possibly to investigate it or be framed for it (or both).

Nathan Adler: a private eye; a disjointed and unreliable narrative voice, appearing more than any other character but not saying anything about himself. Offers a disenchanted outsider’s perspective on cyberspace (“the slime end of the silicone-chip biz”); reminiscent of Blade Runner, particularly the original version (with voice-over). (NB Blade Runner also features a character named Leon.)

Protector: according to Baby Grace Blue, “the second Protector” took power after “the British revolution”; he is also referred to as one of “the small friends” and as “the grand visioner … who made soul patches the law”. This appears to be the same person heard addressing an adoring crowd in upper-class Received Pronunciation, commending them as “number one packet-sniffers” and offering to “creep together” – and “end together” – with them.

Connoisseur: a voice with the affected tones and high-RP diction of a caricature aesthete or critic; think Brian Sewell.

Baby Grace Blue: victim of kidnapping by Ramona A. Stone, possibly working on behalf of the Protector. Ramona puts Grace on “interest drugs” and has her record a statement, which Grace ends by anticipating that something “horrid” is going to happen to her. What does happen to Grace is not known, although it appears at one point that she (or her consciousness) is “stuck in a Web”, i.e. permanently uploaded into cyberspace.

Director: a person who recruits Leon and alternately scolds and encourages him to carry out unspecific acts, possibly including murder. May be Ramona A. Stone herself, but probably an employee or associate.

Algeria Touchshriek: a shopkeeper (possibly a pimp or procurer), conscious of his advanced age and low physical status as a “slump male” or “broken man”; Cockney accent. Owns a shop close to the Museum of Modern Parts[sic]. May have connections with Ramona A. Stone; claims to have met Leon only once.

Ramona A. Stone: a former artist, whose works appear to involve babies, turned art world impresario. Also, apparently, a drug dealer and an explorer of cyberspace, possibly involving body modification (cf. Orlan, Kevin Warwick). Named by six characters, herself included. By the endit appears that Ramona‘s physical body has been dismembered; her voice continues to appear, and on one occasion refers to herself in the past tense (“I was Ramona A. Stone”), suggesting that Ramona has been uploaded into cyberspace.

Anxious man: a man in the throes of a mental breakdown, apparently triggered by being asked to do, and/or being threatened with, something unbearable (“I won’t hide me, they won’t smell this, he should hide me, I won’t kill that”…). Possibly Leon(?).

Minor characters

With the exception of the first, each of these voices only appears once; they can be considered as a collective Chorus, helping establish the Leon universe by highlighting details and/or reiterating comments by main characters.

Narrator: a default category for appearances by Bowie using an unaffected singing voice or his own “David Jones” speaking voice.

Rock star: American accent.

Radio announcer: American accent.

Lounge singer: sings a version of “We’ll creep together”.

MC: introduces the Leek Soldiers.

Expert: comments (in a German accent) on the Internet as an information superhighway.

Stand-up comic: does a fast-talking but unfunny ventriloquist routine followed by some fast-talking but unfunny verbal comedy. American accent.

4. Who’s there?

So – finally – what happens in Leon, and who does it happen to? It’s not – like 1. Outside – the story of the ritual art-murder of Baby Grace Blue, although it seems unlikely that Grace is alive and well by the end of the story. There’s no Minotaur, for a start – no death-crazed sadistic artist – and only a passing suggestion of pre-millennial psychosis. It’s the story of a world where fleshly bodies and physical presence are strictly optional, generating equal and opposite fascinations with transcending the physical body and with fleshy physicality itself (the babies, the hard skin, the breath-filled crowdthe breeders in the enclave, that sensational mouth). Primarily it’s the story of Ramona A. Stone, artist of human physicality, cybernaut, psychonaut, impresario and recruiter, variously seen making art with (or from) babies and their mothers, wading into a riot “with her waving hair and her research grants”, and disappearing into cyberspace so completely that even her body is reduced to ash. But it’s also about Leon, who may or may not have done something terrible, and may or may not have been driven mad as a result; about the ‘small friends’ who lure Baby Grace Blue (and others) into cyberspace, one of whom appears (just by the way) to be the charismatic dictator of Britain; and about the joys of “creeping together”, for everyone from that dictator’s followers to “slump male” Touchshriek. It’s a story of art, and drugs, and death, and madness, and sexual exploitation, and political Supermen – all fictionalised through the master-trope of cyberspace. Short of including the Compuserve address for the Free Tibet campaign, it couldn’t be much more on-brand for Bowie, or much more on-trend for 1994.

There were problems with it, though. It wasn’t an album, not as such (a stipulation which has all the more force if we remember that the 70 minutes we can hear stands in for 30+ hours of tape). Musically it sounds loose and unfinished – it sounds like a series of jams, in fact, which is of course what it is. Some of them sound pretty good, but none of them is really ready to go as a song (although a couple of the instrumental pieces would work as they stand). And lyrically it’s – not to put too fine a point on it – weird as hell. The manifold loose ends (what did happen to Baby Grace? why is that man having a breakdown?) aren’t the problem; if anything the problem is the reverse, the coherence of the world-building. We’ve got a whole fictional world here, with its own politics, its own artforms, its own language and – in particular – its own voices. We’re ushered “outside” by Leon Blank, mumbling an incomprehensible series of dates; then there’s a single verse sung in Bowie’s familiar voice, but on inspection that’s incomprehensible too. From then on we’re very largely in the hands of Nathan Adler, who speaks and sings in an unprepossessing growl reminiscent of the Residents and – despite his gumshoe stylings and verbal tics like “as I always said” – plainly isn’t speaking contemporary American English. Outside? We’re inside; the door’s swung shut and locked us into an alien world for the next seventy minutes. Happy landings!

Bowie had only ventured into concept-album territory twice before, with Diamond Dogs and before that with Ziggy. Both involve building a science-fictional world, but neither of them has anything like this all-enveloping quality; in fact, both albums are extremely loose, apparently by design. “Dodo” and “Alternative Candidate” – cut from Diamond Dogs – plainly belong on that album, which you couldn’t say of “Rock’n’roll with me” or “Rebel Rebel”; it’s not hard to imagine a Young Americans version of “RNRWM”. (Just as the non-album “Velvet Goldmine” and “Sweet Head” are pure Ziggy Stardust songs – unlike “Moonage Daydream” (written for Arnold Corns) and “It ain’t easy” (a cover which Bowie used to sing with his mates).) And this was very much the approach that Bowie would eventually take with 1. Outside – there was a concept, but there were also some banging tunes, and then there was some other stuff that he was into at the time. Which made life more interesting for Bowie himself (who got bored very easily) and it also made the whole thing more commercial – so really, everyone was happy. It meant that the Leon tapes got left behind and forgotten, but who cared about that? (Who knew about that?)

So Leon was a one-off: despite his fondness for characters and voices, Bowie had never done anything like this before, and never really would again. It was a curiosity – and, at least in its time, an unreleasable curiosity. But what a curiosity!

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