Wednesday, February 21

David Rave On

I had planned to jot something down about "The Legendary Guitar Amp Tapes" (the Velvet Underground bootleg recording from '69 that was taped from Lou Reed's amp, with the squawks, squeals, blistering feedback and lyrical runs one would expect from such a recording), but another recording I "acquired" this weekend is holding me hostage; David Bowie and Stevie Ray Vaughan in rehearsal for 1983s "Serious Moonlight" tour. Due to last-minute contractual bickering, Vaughan never did play with Bowie and his band on that tour (he was replaced by Earl Slick). However, the rehearsals were taped, and I'm nigh stunned hearing what might have been.

In the liner notes to the DVD release of Stevie Ray Vaughan & Double Troubles 1982 Montreux Jazz Festival performance, Bowie wrote:
December rolled around and after only a couple or so weeks in the studio Nile Rodgers and I had put down the tracks and vocals of my new album, Let's Dance. All that was left was to overdub the lead guitar. In the third week of December Stevie strolled into the Power Station and proceeded to rip-up everything one thought about dance records. After his blistering solo on the title song he ambled into the control room and with a cheeky smile on his face, shyly quipped, "That one's for Albert", knowing full well that I would understand that King's own playing was the genesis for that solo. One after another he knocked down solo upon solo, song upon song. In a ridiculously short time he had become midwife to the sound that I had had ringing in my ears all year. A dance form that had its melody rooted in a European sensibility but owed its impact to the blues."

Tour rehearsals were a fairly disjointed affair for me as I was also being shunted here, there and everywhere to do press for the albums release. By the time I got to Dallas the band had already honed the songs to a near finished state. Although pretty disjointed himself as drugs were seriously taking their toll, Stevie was pulling notes out of the air that no one could have dreamed would have worked with my songs. In fact there is a bootleg out there somewhere containing one days playing, a gem for those that can find it.
It is, as Bowie says, "a gem." Vaughan comes across as the driving force of these interpretations, bringing a more traditional rhythm & blues sound (as opposed to the plastic soul and modern r&b sound of mid-seventies Bowie) that adds a "call and response" aspect to some of the tracks, particularly in the solos. Vaughan plays a short riff, echoed and expanded by the horn section, restated and expanded further by Vaughan, taken up by the keyboards and then brought back to basics by Vaughan and the song continues. Bowie, as evidenced in his quote, was not a participant in the evolution of this style, but was added to the top. He comes across as a reluctant interloper, as amazed by the arrangements as I am. He blends in better in these recordings than in almost anything I've heard (Bowie and his boundless ego are not easy collaborators, as Tin Machine so ably proved), and there are a few moments where he ad-libs after a flubbed line, laughs and tries to right himself for the next verse, unwilling to stop the band's groove. This is in marked contrast to other rehearsals I've heard, where a goof by either Bowie or the band led to an immediate stop and a tense restart, or a blistering dressing down of the offending player by Bowie (though he, of course, is above reproach).

To compare this to the bootlegs from the subsequent tour is somewhat cruel; Earl Slick is a solid, if not singular, lead guitarist, and Bowie and the band were in very fine form throughout. However, the Stevie Ray recordings sound, to my ears, like a critical missed evolutionary step for Bowie; from plastic soul to r&b bandleader. Early in the rehearsal they play "Heroes" and Vaughan bends that singular note for measure after measure, sustaining it until it finally starts to fade; then he adds a quick little two or three-note hint at the guitar lick from the chorus before hammering back to the note and wringing it out again for all it's worth. No pedals, no effects, just a finger on a fret. The horn section vamps the chorus "da-da-duh-dah-da/da-da-duh-dah-da" and the saxophone drops down, growling, and the vamp resets. The result isn't funk, but an earlier sound, maybe Muscle Shoals.

The horns work similar magic on the cold eurofunk of "What In The World." The original is one of my favorite Bowie tracks, all off-kilter and deranged, closer to the songs Bowie gave to Iggy Pop in those Berlin years than to the rest of his own Berlin output. Here it starts like a Martian's version of Sam & Dave, the horn vamps on the chorus reminiscent of "Soul Man"; but when the song reaches the expected end, it relaunches at double-speed and comes out like Frank Zappa, complete with what sounds like xylophones and Stevie Ray Vaughan doing clipped and muted Fripp-like runs atop a manic piano. Singular, beautiful and strange.

The rehearsal recordings cover 31 songs. They aren't all revelatory, but the more I listen the more I think that they all would have been by the end of the tour. "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)" has never been particularly good in my opinion, but here I like the build from synth-pop to guitar rave-up. It doesn't quite come together (SRV is in full blues-mode on the solos and the band doesn't make the necessary adjustments to support him; they kind of let him flail enthusiastically and then go back to their thing), but the last chorus works very well, as the synths step back a bit and SRV steps up. I imagine that would only have become a greater meld as time went on. "White Light/White Heat" harkens back to before the Velvet Underground, becoming the Little Richard song it always wanted to be. You could imagine this being in Richard's repertoire in the Jimi Hendrix years, except for one glaring fact; Bowie is not even a poor-broken-down-hobo-street-fighting-for-$20 man's Little Richard. His pipes, perfectly fine for covering Lou Reed under normal circumstances, fail his bands inspired arrangement. I guess that wouldn't have changed, but the band might have inspired another, greater vocalist to take up that challenge.

Regardless of their pupal state, these rehearsal recordings are nigh essential for any Bowie fan. Made my weekend.


Ian said...

Oh God, is there any way you could sendspace over the version of "Heroes"? The rest I can live without, but I neeeed to hear this.

Erik said...

Ian -

I sent you a YSI link - if it doesn't come through let me know and I'll sign up for sendspace and try it that way.

Alex in NYC said...

Holy Crap, that sounds amazing. I was always crushed that the Bowie/Vaughn alliance fell apart. Cheers for the review.

Erik said...

It really is a shame that it never developed further.

I feel I may be overhyping it slightly (only slightly, mind you) because it is so tantalizing.

Here's the YSI link I sent to Ian so people can be disappointed.


Erik said...

Because I want people to hear what a difference Stevie made, here is the same song, with same band except for Earl Slick on guitar, three months later:

"Heroes" (Montreal)

Rick said...

I have a near master tape in stereo you guys have got to hear......I'll put it on soon.