The Infinite Jukebox: David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’


Though in 1969 I was beginning to hear some pop music, here and there, I doubt I heard David Bowie’s ‘Space Oddity’, a number 5 hit in October, Bowie’s first hit, and his last until 1972. Of course I heard it as a Golden Oldie in the Seventies, and as a number 1 on reissue in 1975. A brilliant song, an absorbing, strange, affecting song, and a classic.
But it was more than thirty years later, in the 2000s and on Sounds of the Sixties, that I found out that the record I’d heard so many times was NOT the hit single of 1969.
Brian Matthew was running a weekly feature on One Hit Wonders of the Sixties (later changed to a much more unwieldy title to take account of some of these Wonders having had additional hits in the Fifties or the Seventies, to whit, David Bowie). When he got to ‘Space Oddity’, he played the original.
I had never heard it before in my life and I could not believe what I was hearing.
The difference between the two is extraordinary. It’s the same song, with the same structure and virtually all the same words, although the familiar version is nearly ninety seconds longer. But the original is crude and rough and weak: play the two together to someone unfamiliar with the song’s history and they would immediately identify the original as a bad cover version. In every respect, and not merely the familiarity of nearly fifty years, the re-recorded version is a massive improvement.
Bowie’s singing in 1969 is subdued and undistinguished. He’s mostly singing in a monotone, still transitioning from his Anthony Newley-influenced early style (think ‘Laughing Gnome’ if you can bear it), and making no attempt to dramatise the song in any way.
And what a song! It was a total departure from Bowie’s career to date, a space fantasy inspired by a combination of the Moon Landings and Kubrick’s 2001 – a Space Odyssey. The original version starts with bongos, the familiar fades in on a lightly strummed acoustic guitar offering no particular rhythm.
The song is a story, a story in multiple parts, told in isolated lines. The build-up to lift-off, introduced by the iconic line, ‘Ground Control to Major Tom’, the deep bass organ note as the Bird lifts off, the sudden euphoria of the world’s absorption of the man in space, far above the world.
And Major Tom responds to Ground Control, stepping through the door into an experience no-one else has ever had. he’s floating in a most peculiar way, and the stars look very different to him from here, free of the atmosphere of Earth.
Different, and helpless. Major Tom is more than one hundred thousand miles, the furthest man from his kind, in an atmosphere in which he could survive for only seconds. The experience is more mystic than frightening, he’s feeling very still, he has put his full trust in his spaceship, which knows where to go, but his voice drops to a calm and level tone as he almost pleads for someone to tell his wife he loves her very much. And responds to himself resoundingly, ‘She knows!’
There’s a sudden urgency from Ground Control, signalling Major Tom, his circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong. Can you hear me Major Tom, they plead desperately, over and again, their anxious words seguing into Major Tom’s placid tones. He’s extra-vehicular, floating round his tin can, far above the moon.
The first man in space is in nothing but space. Planet Earth is blue and there’s nothing he can do… He will become his own satellite, he will never return to Earth.
The original version has virtually none of this emotionalism attaching to any of the song’s phases, and it blurs off at this point into a rapid fade over the acoustic guitar and some bongos. The familiar version bleeds off over vigorously strummed guitar, and organ and studio effects miming radio signals, the incomprehensible audible debris of empty space, as Major Tom drifts further and further away from everything we and he recognise of Earth…
An extraordinary record. I don’t know when Bowie produced the version we all know now, just that this was the only version I knew from long before its 1975 reissue. It took almost three years from ‘Space Oddity’ to ‘Starman’ to the true beginning of Bowie’s career as a master of music and an explorer of where we were going to be. I sometimes think that if he’d been capable of producing the familiar recording in 1969, that gap would have been greatly diminished.

Film 2018: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me


Fittingly or otherwise, the film I left myself for the final Film 2018 session was David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the controversial sequel to the enigmatic TV series that wasted what seemed then to be the only opportunity to complete the story that had left Special Agent Dale Cooper trapped in the Black Lodge of the series, and instead set an evil doppelganger loose to take his place.

Instead, Lynch (without co-creator Mark Frost, with whom relations had become strained) chose to do a prequel, billed as the last seven days of Laura Palmer’s life. In many ways, I still resent this decision, even now a third series has appeared: everyone was there and alive and young, and most of them were available, and this could have been a real ‘Twin Peaks’ film.

As it is, most of the cast played a part in this film, though for many their parts were limited, and for even more they were excluded to bring the film down to a mere 129 minutes. A handful of major players were unavailable due to scheduling conflicts with other projects (though Sherilyn Fenn later indicated that she had not wanted to be involved, after the vagaries of season 2). One of these was Lara Flynn Boyle, who had played Donna Hayward, Laura Palmer’s best friend: Donna’s part was integral to the story so she was recast, with Moira Kelly, a much less striking actress, taking the role.

The film, and its prospects, were distorted from the outset by Kyle MacLachlan’s fear of becoming typecast as Dale Cooper. Initially, he refused to consider the film, but ended up agreeing to a greatly diminished role, requiring the entire first half hour of the film to be rewritten, to the detriment of the film’s cohesion.

In the ansence of Coop, Lynch and his co-writer, Robert Engels, had to introduce Special Agent Chester ‘Chet’ Desmond to investigate the murder of drifter, waitress and prostitute Theresa Banks. Banks was the first killing, a year before Laura Palmer. Desmond was played, laconically but a bit stiffly, by singer Chris Isaak, already of ‘Wicked Game’ fame, and his sidekick, the awkward, bow-tied forensic expert, Sam Stanley, by a young Kiefer Sutherland.

Over insular opposition from local law enforcement, the Agents determine Banks was killed by multiple blows to the back of the skull and that a large green ring featuring a weird design that is familiar to those of us who watched the series, has been stolen from her finger. Stanley takes the body back to Portland, Desmond returns to the trailer park where Banks lives, finds her ring under a lit-up trailer, and is sucked into another dimension, populated by the mysterious characters who hang around the Black Lodge. He is never seen again.

Put like that, this lengthy opening sequence, which takes up the film’s first twenty-five minutes, seems like a straightforward setting in place of the Theresa Banks murder, not a million miles from a certain town in Washington State. If not for Kyle MacLachlan’s reluctance, it would have been Agent Cooper investigating, in which case this section would have seemed better integrated into the story, and I bet he wouldn’t have vanished inexplicably on finding the ring.

But then I haven’t mentioned any of the details, and the details always matter in a David Lynch film, and I haven’t mentioned any of the seriously loopy stuff that makes you wonder just what the hell is going on. And, in the case of the dancing woman in the red wig and dress, wearing a blue rose, whose dance is a ludicrously coded set of instructions to Agent Desmond (a briefing sheet would have worked even better but would not have been so self-consciously strange), we wouldn’t get an explanation of that until 2017.

And Lynch then prolongs the strangeness by switching to Philadelphia, FBI HQ, Gordon Cole (Lynch), Albert (Miguel Ferrer) and Coop. Coop’s being weird, checking the corridor security cam then dashing into the surveillance room to look at the feed of an empty corridor. He does this two or three times until, on the last occasion, he’s in the surveillance room, and he’s still on the security cam. Enter the long-missing Agent Philip Jeffries, played by David Bowie in a Hawaiian shirt and white linen suit, with a deep tan and a bouncy walk.

Jeffries is talking nonsense. He’s not talking about Judy. He’s aware of his colleagues but he isn’t on the same planet as them. Coop goes to check the security feed and Jeffries disappears. He was never there. But he was there.

As the late, great Spike put it, “It’s all rather confusing really”, and deliberately so. There’s a temptation to write off all the film up to this point, nearly thirty-five minutes in, as rubbish, and it certainly doesn’t seem to have any true, organic coonnection to the rest. For now comes the moment of comfort, of recognition and an instant relaxation for the audience, as we jump One Year Later and it’s the oh-so familar Welcome to Twin Peaks road sign and that instantly soothing twin note music by Angelo Badalamenti.

From this point onwards, the film is set in Twin Peaks, and it is Twin Peaks, and we are locked into watching the last seven days of Laura Palmer’s life.

Fire Walk With Me is billed as starring Sheryl Lee as Laura and Ray Wise as Leland Palmer, her father. Wise has a lot of screen time but isn’t required to do much more than look quasi-satanical. If we didn’t already know that he is the one who kills Laura, after years of incestuous rape, starting when she was 12, we would finger him anyway for his off-kilter performance, his obvious obsession with hi daughter, his volatile mood-swings and the way he just looks.

But from here on in, the film belongs to Sheryl Lee. In the series, she only got to play Laura alive in flashbacks, short and usually sweet. Here she gets to play the living person and she is astounding. Laura Palmer, blonde, beautiful, intelligent, Homecoming Queen, volunteer Meals on Wheels helper. Laura Palmer, fucking her ‘official’ boyfriend, jock Bobby Briggs, her unofficial boyfriend, James Hurley, the agrophobic recluse, Harold Smith, big, fat Jaques Renault from the Bang Bang Bar, not to mention being pimped out by him. Laura Palmer, High School smoker, drinker, cocaine addict. Laura Palmer, with the scary, horrifying, greasy, stubbly, assailant, BOB, who climbs in through her bedroom window at night, who has been ‘having’ her since she was twelve.

Lee is all these people, in turn and at once, flickering between faces. Everything is ever so slightly OTT, but the intensity that she brings to every emotion grips you and drags you along, whilst simultaneously conveying to you that this beautiful young girl, with everything going for her, is already dead, inside.

Even if we did not know that we are leading up to the opening of Twin Peaks, the discovery of Laua Palmer’s body, wrapped in plastic, floating in the lake, we would know, simply by watching Sheryl Lee, that she is sliding towards an end that will be neither commonplace nor easeful. As everything locks into place around her, as the pieces move that send her along the course that finally leads to her father’s insane and murderous attack, we understand that we are not watching fate step in to shut down all avenues of escape. All of Laura’s last chances were lost long before we got to the Welcome to Twin Peaks road sign. It’s too late, it’s far too late. We are condemned to watch the inevitable.

And it is horrible. There’s violence and degradation, but it’s not there for its own sake. It’s just part of the road, and Lynch doesn’t thrust it in our face or dwell on it. Lee lives it, simultaneously numbed and with every nerve in her affected. The two most awful moments are both sexual: Laura is terrified in her own home by the presence of BOB in the daytime, runs, crying and fearful, for cover outside, then sees her father leave the house. For the first time, she realises that her abuse has come from her own father: the blackness, the despair, the nausea. We and she understand the sickness in Leland’s ‘ordinary’ behaviour to her, the confirmation of her utter solitude.

And later, very much later, just before he will batter hs own daughter to death, Leland brandishes at her the two pages torn from her secret diary, and screams at her, in his own anguish, “I thought you knew it was me!”

The last half of this film, as the end closes in on Laura and we see her in all her phases and moods, fills in all the details we learned, retrospectively, in season 1, unpicked and assembled by Dale Cooper. It twists us at every turn, the horror of inevitability, of being forced to watch – because we cannot turn our face away – the sight of death spreading from within and bringing itself down upon this beautiful girl.

There are so many more pieces to this puzzle. What Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me really needed was Twin Peaks: The Return. It is now no longer the falling off, the unwanted beginning instead of the desired end. But it is still the beginning, even as it’s the ending of Film 2018. I’ve enjoyed this year of Sunday morning films very much. I hope some of you who have read these commentaries have enjoyed them as well.

Film 2018: The Prestige


I don’t usually tend to watch films based on books I know, partly because the kind of books I like very rarely get adapted to film, but more often because I find it very hard to sink into the film and enjoy it for itself because a distinct part of me is continually assessing the mechanics of the adaptation: what’s left out, what’s been compressed, how they handled that scene, aaahh, how they dealt with that bit: no, didn’t like that at all.

As you’ll already be aware, I’ve been a long-term follower of Christopher Priest’s work (curious irony: an Amazon pre-order for his newest novel was in my in-box when I logged on today, before watching this film again) and it took me a long time to test what everyone, including Priest himself, had said, namely that this was good, indeed very good.

Re-watching it this morning, after a long break, I found myself oblivious to how the film is structured to adapt the novel, and more concerned to read how many clues there are to the essential mysteries of the film, which of course I knew from knowing the book.

What The Prestige is about is the rivalry between two late-Nineteenth Century stage magicians, Robert Angier (The Great Danton) (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (The Professor – Le Professeur de la Magie in the novel) (Christian Bale). It focuses on their enmity: Borden is responsible for Angier’s wife’s death on stage, is the better magician to Angier’s superior stagemanship, both try to sabotage each other’s acts, spy on each other, etc. Primarily it centres on one trick, The Transported Man, by which each magician disappears in one place and reappears in another almost instantly.

Borden invents it, Angier tries to duplicate it. Each has their own method but it’s not enough to have their own successful act, each has to know the other’s secret.

Director Christopher Nolan, working with a script adapted by his brother Jonathan, takes an achronological approach to the story, working within a frame-story that deals with the aftermath, in which the meat of events is presented as at least two series of flashbacks, and these are not themselves wholly chronological. We begin with a shot of a field full of identical black top hats, which is crucial to one strand of the plot but whose significance is not understood until much later.

Then we find Borden on trial for the murder of Angier, who, as part of the trick, falls through a trapdoor into a locked cabinet of water, where he drowns.

Then we watch John Cutter, Angier’s ingenieur or stage engineer (a lovely, warm performance by Michael Caine) demonstrate a fairly basic magic trick to a little girl, setting up the concept of the three parts of a magic trick: the Pledge, the Turn and the Prestige, a three-act structure that the Nolans apply to the screenplay.

I’m undecided as to how much of the film’s secrets or revelations to discuss here. I mean, the novel’s been available since 1995 and the film appeared in 2006, so it’s not like I’m risking significant spoilers, but on the other hand the film does tie itself into quite complex knots to preserve its mysteries to very nearly the end, and I feel under a certain obligation to give in to its obsession. For spoilers, read this.

So, knowing in advance what revelations await, how does the film work? Quite simply, superbly. The film incarnates the period, and Bale and Jackman in their contrasting roles are both outstanding and utterly convincing. The supporting cast are also excellent: Rebecca Hall in the rather understated role of Borden’s wife, Sarah and Scarlett Johansen in the more obvious part of Olivia, mistress and assistant too both Angier and Borden are equally natural, and their duality is, for those aware of the true situation, a vital key to one of the revelations.

Indeed, duality (as opposed to Priestian Unreality) is a key element in The Prestige. Though the film avoids those parts of the book where the same events are described in differing ways according to which magician is seeing them, its objective approach is wrapped up in duplicated experiences on each side. To take one blatant example, at different times each magician obtains possession of the other’s diary, pores over it extensively, and learns that each diary is a plant, ending in a direct address to its intended reader, exposing itself to be a complex manipulation.

Once you begin to understand the extent to which duality is a factor in the presentation of the story, it shouldn’t be too difficult to see into the realities that Chris Nolan wants to withhold until the end. In fact, with foreknowledge, it can be seen that the film overflows with minor clues.

I’ve mentioned the film’s primary cast, though Rebecca Hall is actually a supporting actress, and mention must certainly be made of David Bowie’s mildly-extended cameo as the science/electric pioneer, Nikolai Tesla (with Andy Sirkis, blessedly motion-capture free, as his assistant). Bowie, in a neatly underplayed performance, makes Tesla into a strange, near-alien presence, lending a psychological credence to his producing, out of nowhere, the only genuinely magical element of the entire film, even as it is paraded as not Magic but Science.

This is the other mystery that Nolan wants to withhold until the very end. We’ve seen it in action at the outset, or rather one esoteric aspect of it, and it spurs the film into action as the explanation for why Alfred Borden is on trial, is convicted, is hanged. Put the field of top hats together with the man in the locked cage of water and you can understand the magic without needing the last, final, horrific shot to render explicit what the film has long since given away. All things are duplicated.

Actually, the end is the only disappointing thing about the film. Borden, who has died for killing Angier when he hasn’t killed him, kills Angier (work that one out) but not before the two have a final, cryptic conversation that is far too long and slows the film to a crawl just when it needs to stay taut.

I do have one further complaint about the film, or rather my DVD copy of it, which has the soundtrack mixed so low that, given that so much of it is conducted in whispers, or lowered voices, it was impossible to make out what was being said on many occasions, even with the laptop volume cranked up to 100.

But this is still a great film, and despite its differing intentions, it’s a worthy companion to Christopher Priest’s novel. Different but equal: no better thing can be said about an adaptation.

Sentenced to Life


There’s already been too much death this year, both public and private. On Thursday, I will be attending the funeral of the mother of one of my closest friends. He came to my mother’s funeral, twenty-four years ago, at this same time of year, and I will be the only one of this little circle of friends who can stand with him.

Unless there’s going to be more luck in this year than I dream possible, there’s going to be more deaths, more mournings. Not among the people I know, nor their loved ones, that much may be hoped for, but there will be people out there, in the wider world who, like Bowie and Rickman, aye and Lemmy, though I was never into his music, will leave the world less palatable than it’s sometimes been.

One of those names I expect will be Clive James. I remember him from as far back as Granada’s Cinema, back in 1973. I remember him from the lyrics to Pete Atkin’s songs, from the collections of television criticism, from the novels, the essays, the memoirs, the wit, the wisdom, the overt cleverness and the sentence that glitters and dances, over and over again.

Today, courtesy of e-Bay, a copy of his most recent poetry collection, Sentenced to Life, has arrived through my door, and I’ve wrestled the package open and I’ve begun to read, and I’ve stopped reading after only a handful of pages, because these poems have the same thing at the heart of them, because James is looking back and into himself with every line. Loss and regret and yet the determination still to say things, say things in a way no-one else has or ever could. How the memory of the Sydney sun on the bay still burns in his mind, rendering it unnecessary to rue that he will never see it again with his eyes.

I’ve had to stop because I don’t dare hope that Clive James may yet prove to be quasi-immortal, and that there might still be more, that the loneliness of losing the people you respect, you admire, that you take knowledge from might still be postponed throughout the entirety of 2016. It’s already got too many good ones, is there any chance it will hold back and we’ll get to hang on to this one a time longer.

It’s going to take me all week to read a slim book, because I can’t read it all at once, or more than just short fragments that lead me into too much empathy, too quickly. I have a real funeral, for someone I know, to attend. I donn’t think I can afford to be too prepared.

 

Not again…


Oh, but this is becoming the very bastard of a year.

I’ve hardly begun to process the death of David Bowie, the news of which broke on Monday and it’s only Thursday and now Alan Rickman has died, and it’s cancer, fucking fucking cancer, yet again. It’s not even halfway through the first month of the year and that’s three already, what with Lemmy.

Everybody’s got their own favourite memory of Alan Rickman. A great many people, younger people especially, will immediately think of Snape in the Harry Potter films (and it was only two days ago that I was told that, before the filming of the first of them, when Rickman had been cast, J.K. Rowling took him into a private room and told him Snape’s fate and his schemes – long before any of this was written – so that he would know what lay behind the character).

Others will think of Hans Gruber in Die Hard, or the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves, about which I remember him commenting, after winning an award, that he now understood that subtlety wasn’t necessarily important. Or Jamie, coming back from the dead for Juliet Stephenson in Truly, Madly, Deeply, and that glorious, silly, heart-rendering scene where they sing ‘The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore’ over piano and a bass.

But for me, I will always go back to the beginning, to the 1982 adaptation of Trollope’s first two Barchester novels as The Barchester Chronicles (which I didn’t see until a repeat in 1990 or thereabouts). In one of the most perfectly cast series I have ever seen, Rickman was the newcomer, playing the Reverend Obadiah Slope in episodes 3-7.

Oh, and how brilliant he was, how perfectly he incarnated the part, to the extent that every time he was on screen, you expected to find pools of slime dripping out of the television set onto the carpet.

He was so bloody good. We cannot bear this, we cannot have so many good and great artists being taken from us so repeatedly. Not again. Fucking cancer, not again, please.

Ziggy played Guitar…


Oh, hell’s bells, no.

Waking up on a Monday morning to find that David Bowie – who only days ago, literally, was causing a splash with a new album – has died at the age of 69, of cancer, fucking cancer, yet again, is not the way to start any self-respecting week. It kicks the guts out of life, it opens up a great big hollow, and makes you wonder why you ever get out of bed.

And it’s not even as if I was ever a great Bowie fan myself. But I was there, throughout the Seventies,through all the great singles and albums, I was there when he was proving to be one of the most fascinating musicians around.

From ‘Starman’ on Top of the Pops – yes, I saw that legendary first performance though I didn’t get the same transgressive charge from it as others, perhaps because I didn’t watch it in the face of parental disgust – to ‘Blue Jean’ in 1984, the last of his singles that I really took note of, it was a dozen years where Bowie, whatever you may have thought of any particular phase, was undoubtedly the most important musical artist around.

Bowie was the Pathfinder, the Wayfarer, always attuned to where music was about to go and getting there a couple of years ahead of everybody else. It was more than uncanny, it was like a superpower.

Then the power left him, and he began to drift out of cultural importance, never to regain that beyond-the-cutting-edge sharpness.

But he had been there, and like him or not he had led, and the loss of him creates a massive hole in the world. There’s never been anyone like him and there never will again, and his leaving takes away something that we need in our heads.

If I have to choose one Bowie song to salute him, this is the obvious one.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m3SjCzA71eM