Friday, May 15, 2009

Artifact From An Album That Never Was

Blown Away With the Sands.

A friend of mine from college once told me late at night that every time he heard David Bowie, he thought of sand dunes.

Every grain of sand was a potential new career Bowie could have had -- each one strong enough to act as the foundation for a giant dune, but each easily blown away by the wind in favor of a new grain of sand (and a slightly different dune).

So, after a series of cartoonish singles in the late 60s (which then were endlessly repackaged on compilation albums -- "The Laughing Gnome," anyone?), Bowie settled in for a decade of flirtations with hippie folk, glam rock, Philly Soul, electronica, dance pop, and punk-lite.

Following, the commercial and artistic triumph of The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars, Bowie hauled the Spiders back into the studio to record an offbeat collection of British songs (from groups like the Who, the Pretty Things, the Who, the Easybeats, the Yardbirds, and Pink Floyd) Bowie had loved in the 1960s . The resulting album, Pin Ups, is a strange and wondrous anomaly whose appearance served as a signal that Bowie's career would be built on a foundation of anomalies.

A year later, the Spiders from Mars were gone (with Mick Ronson shifting permanently into a Mott the Hoople/Ian Hunter orbit) and Bowie's musical adaptation of George Orwell's 1984 morphed (after Orwell's widow refused to sell the rights) into a dystopian concept album called Diamond Dogs.

Bowie toyed with the idea of recording a sequel to Pin Ups featuring American songs from the late 60s and early 70s, but only completed on song -- a Bruce Springsteen number (plucked from Springsteen's self-consciously Dylanesque debut album) called "Growin' Up":

Bowie's version wouldn't surface until the 1990s, when RykoDisc reissued all the early Bowie albums with a great collection of bonus tracks. Ryko put "Growin' Up" with the other covers on Pin Ups, but the song vanished after Virgin/EMI bought the rights to Bowie's catalogue. The song reappeared a few years later as a bonus track on the 30th anniversary edition of Diamond Dogs (don't worry, there won't be a quiz).

I mentioned Bowie and the grains of sand theory to my friend from college the other day. He insists he never said it and speculates that I dreamed the entire conversation "because isn't college like a four-year dream?" Maybe so. Or maybe it's like Springsteen would say "I strolled all alone through a fallout zone and came out with my soul untouched." (But with lots of great records.)

Still, I would've loved to have heard the whole American Pin Ups album (or even have known what else would have been on it). The one thing I do know is that Bowie (along with Mick Ronson and the other Spiders From Mars) recorded a version of the Velvet Underground's "White Lines/White Heat" during the Pin Up sessions. That song has never been released, but Bowie gave the track to Mick Ronson, who kept erased Bowie's vocals and recorded his own, releasing it on his Play, Don't Worry album. One year, I had a temporary job cleaning up dorm rooms after students moved out. In one room, I found a huge pile of sand in the corner, along with an unopened bottle of Tequila and a vinyl copy of Play, Don't Worry. I gave away the Tequila, kept the record, and swept up the sand, which blew away in the breeze like the shifting sand dunes of David Bowie's career.

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