David Bowie – ‘Wild Is The Wind’ – A personal view.
There are a few songs that I can only listen to very, very occasionally. Their brilliance is almost blinding and I am afraid that if I hear them too often, the magic might disappear, or it won’t work on me anymore.
I heard one of those songs today, by accident, and it floored me all over again.
The song was ‘Wild Is The Wind’ from the 1976 album ‘Station To Station’ by David Bowie.
It is one of those recordings that, I think, captured the divine as it passed through the human voice. Like Nina Simone’s recording of ‘Strange Fruit’ on Pastel Blues, some of Bob Dylan’s ‘Albert Hall’ concert recordings or Miles Davis ‘Kind Of Blue’, there seems to be something else besides music going on.
I am not religious. I have a vague notion of something bigger and better than Man, but it remains beyond my understanding. I don’t know what it is and I’m happy enough in the assumption that I will find out when I die.
I believe in music, though, that is for absolute sure, and I know that it has healing, motivating and transformative powers. I have heard it, felt it and seen it with my own eyes. I know it to be true. Sometimes, a singer or musician becomes a conduit, connected to something glorious, amazing and outside of themselves. It then passes through them to the audience – at a gig or onto tape.
More than talent, technique, more than a physiological reaction to the release of endorphins, more than the sound – music can change lives like some aural, interventionist deity. For me, I guess, music is god. I find my god in records, not churches.
Whatever it is, it is on this David Bowie recording. There is something in the singing. Every aspect of the recording is great, but Bowie’s singing bristles with magic, with life, with brilliant shining beauty and terrible, aching pain.
There are plenty of other Bowie songs that have captured magic, breathless beauty, sex and joy to make my life better (sometimes for minutes, sometimes days, even years). He is a hugely talented artist – but this is, vocally, the Nazz.
This is it.
- Bowie recording 1981 video for ‘Wild Is The Wind’
I came to David Bowie late. It was 1980 and I was 17. Prior to that, I had been a hippy kid in Australia, listening to ‘The Wordy Guys’ – Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. I had heard a few of Bowie’s ‘hits’ on the radio, but hadn’t listened to him.
Then I bought ‘Scary Monsters and Super Creeps’, after I heard ‘Ashes To Ashes’ on the radio and I thought it was an extraordinary album. I still do. The tunes are wondrous, the lyrics masterful and the singing superb. And Robert Fripp plays all over it.
‘Scary Monsters and Super Creeps’ was the key to a door. I gathered his entire back catalogue on German RCA reissues, or through my friend James, who would make compilation cassettes for me.
When I first heard ‘Station To Station’, I didn’t like it. It took me a while to appreciate it, but ‘Wild Is The Wind’ got to me from the very first play.
I didn’t see him play live until 20th November 2003, at the Birmingham NEC. It was a birthday present. I was on crutches, with my left leg in plaster from the ankle to the groin. I was somewhat off my face on super-strong painkillers.
(I had recently been through rehab for cocaine and alcohol addiction, and was so happy to have been legally prescribed something opiate-based! Perhaps not the right attitude to have, but I was very new to recovery.)
The gig was amazing – he played for hours and sang everything I wanted to hear. He even did ‘All The Young Dudes’. I was glad he didn’t sing ‘Wild Is The Wind’ – I might have passed out with ecstasy.
Before that night, I had been aware that he had a good voice, obviously, but I didn’t know he was that good. When you are in the same physical space as a singer, the whole process is on show and you can hear and feel much more. His intonation, technique and phrasing were superb for the entire show. He looked fit and strong and could belt it out.
- Wild Is The Wind promo film 1981
‘Wild Is The Wind’ was recorded at Cherokee Studios, Hollywood.
With Harry Maslin producing, Roy Bittan, Earl Slick, bassist George Murray, drummer Dennis Davis and rhythm guitarist Carlos Alomar have laid down the majority of the track. David Bowie was tired, and sometimes had to ask his assistant, Corrine Schwab, what day and what month it was.
During the recording of the six songs for ‘Station To Station’, Bowie was writing and producing with Iggy Pop (for 1977’s ‘The Idiot’) and filming Nicholas Roeg’s ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’.
He was a busy bee.
Harry Maslin and Bowie recorded seven different vocal takes for ‘Wild Is The Wind’, but ended up using the first one. I have not heard the other six takes, but I would be willing to bet that a couple were technically as good, if not better, than the original. I am confident that the reason they went with the first take was because it has the magic present. It had that elusive something.
According to Mr Maslin, Bowie wasn’t overly mic-conscious, (meaning that he would move in and out of range of the microphone while singing – every engineer’s nightmare) and Maslin had to work hard to keep the recording even. I’m so glad he had the skill and fortitude to record it so well.
On ‘Wild Is The Wind’, he captured all the breath, subtlety and emotion in David Bowie’s performance. They used a 24 track desk to record, which allows for live double-tracking of vocals, or using a different mic for a different track – tools for capturing the richly varied sound of a human voice.
Maslin also rated Bowie as a producer: “I think he’s far more advanced than the average producer. He knows a great deal about technical things. He doesn’t know everything, he’s not an engineer, but he knows more about arranging a song, he knows more about how to relate to people and get what he wants out of them.”
David Bowie: “I got some quite extraordinary things out of Earl Slick. I think it captured his imagination to make noises on guitar, and textures, rather than playing the right notes.”
Maslin also offered some insight into how the singer saw himself, technically: “Bowie’s not as critical as most singers. As a matter of fact, he doesn’t even consider himself a good singer. I think he mentioned that once, just a throw-out line — ‘What’s the difference anyway? I’m not a singer,’ something like that… I think he’s one of the best, because he’s not into any one singing style. David’s so versatile with his voice, that’s one of the attractive things about him. Phrasing, mostly, is what he worries about because he’s right on when it comes to intonation.”
I don’t think I will be in danger of receiving libellous law suits if I suggest that there may have been some drug use at the sessions.
Carlos Alomar: “If there’s a line of coke which is going to keep you awake till 8 a.m. so that you can do your guitar part, you do the line of coke.”
Earl Slick: “That album’s a little fuzzy—for obvious reasons! We were in the studio and it was nuts—a lot of hours, a lot of late nights.”
Harry Maslin confirmed that the recording was essentially nocturnal: “We started at 10 or 11 at night and went to anywhere from eight in the morning to whatever, 36 hours later. David knows exactly what he wants, it’s just a matter of sitting there and doing it till it’s done.”
Bowie himself remembers almost nothing of the album’s production, not even the studio, later admitting, “I know it was in LA because I’ve read it was”.
The song itself was written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington and originally recorded by Johnny Mathis for the 1957 film of the same name. It was also one of five songs nominated for an Academy Award and sung, breezy-style, by Johnny Mathis at the 1958 Oscar presentations. The Johnny Mathis version is confectional and positively fluffy.
Nina Simone recorded it twice, and it seems generally accepted that it is through her that Bowie heard it as a possible album closer. He was known to be an admirer of her work (she mentions him as a ‘good friend’ onstage in the late 1970s), and her 7 minute live version at Carnegie Hall in 1964 is a tour-de-force. Her voice has great range, her phrasing is jazz-sublime but, for me, it just doesn’t possess the same blinding magic. Conversely, it is Simone’s version of ‘Strange Fruit’ that seems to have more magic than Billie Holiday’s original, great though it is.
The lyrics to the song appear simple:
Love me, love me, love me, say you do
Let me fly away with you
For my love is like the wind, and wild is the wind
Wild is the wind.
Give me more than one caress,
satisfy this hungriness,
Let the wind blow through your heart
For wild is the wind, wild is the wind.
You touch me,
I hear the sound of mandolins
You kiss me
With your kiss my life begins
You’re spring to me, all things to me
Don’t you know, you’re life itself.
Like the leaf clings to the tree,
Oh, my darling, cling to me
For we’re like creatures of the wind,
and wild is the wind, wild is the wind.
On paper, it looks to be a straight-forward, melodramatic and slightly clingy love song. On David Bowie’s recorded version, it becomes something else entirely.
- 7″ RCA single
‘Wild Is The Wind’ begins with a simple, seemingly un-effected drum, followed by bass and glassy, chorused electric guitar and some lovely snare and cymbal work. Just prior to the vocal, an acoustic guitar starts to strum an extra rhythm.
The drums are beautifully recorded – seemingly un-bothered by effects, they sound real and that is not an easy sound to achieve. The whole band are skilfully restrained and flowing, allowing the singer to fill the spaces in the atmosphere they create.
The vocal is initially pretty restrained, the first couple of lines almost nonchalant, but there follow some lovely held notes with Bowie’s natural tremolo flickering a little.
I think the understated start is perfect, as it makes what follows all the more powerful and remarkable.
Around the two minute mark, the magic really starts to shine and Bowie’s vocals begin to grow in feeling and power. The connection has been made and a kind of creative possession begins. He really starts to get into it. I think he must have known, instinctively, that he was onto something.
I love this bit. The breathy break-down after the chorus is exquisite and the drum fill that follows the stark, pleading “don’t you know you’re life itself?” (at 4:12) propels the song into its glorious final passage.
It is here that the vocals soar to another plane, pleading and begging, becoming more and more desperate, the singer struggling to keep control.
The final line sends major shivers down my spine. You can hear that it is clipped at the end as Bowie pulls away from the microphone, out of breath and, I would imagine, emotionally exhausted.
Singing is an emotional and surprisingly physical exercise, requiring muscle and breath control, intense focus, deep emotional commitment and the energy expended to produce a vocal like that would have been draining. Having six more cracks at it would have even Olympic athletes gasping. A 100 pound musician with a coke habit must have been shattered.
The whole thing affects me deeply, and has done since I first heard it. It is a dark and unsettling experience, and though the reasons it moves and disturbs me have changed, its power remains the same.
I used to listen to it while in the grip of my own drug and alcohol addiction and was afraid I would die there. I used to hear it as a desperate plea to escape addiction while being utterly powerless to do so. Now I am clean and sober, I hear it in a different but equally moving way – a realisation of what addiction takes from people and what it took from me.
I have no idea what David Bowie felt when he sang it. I have never met him and it doesn’t matter anyway. I hear what I hear, feel what I feel and that is that.
There is no question about the power of the performance. It sounds to me like the singer was suffering when he performed it, and that adds to the beauty of it. He may have been happy as a clam for all I know, but the divine was there regardless.
Like I said, I can’t play it too often. When I do, though, it never fails to amaze and inspire me.
Thank you David Bowie.
- The Thin White Duke
“It’s not the side-effects of the cocaine. I’m thinking that it must be love.”
‘Give cocaine to a man already wise,’ wrote Aleister Crowley in 1917, ‘and if he be really master of himself, it will do him no harm. Alas, the power of the drug diminishes with fearful pace. The doses wax; the pleasures wane. Side-issues, invisible at first, arise; they are like devils with flaming pitchforks in their hands.’
“I like fast drugs. I hate anything that slows me down.”
(Bowie to Cameron Crowe in 1975).
“I’d found a soul-mate in this drug. Well, speed as well, actually. The combination.”
(Bowie to Paul Du Noyer in 2002).
”It left me with emotional damage. My mind is like Swiss cheese. Unbelievable holes in my memory.”
(Bowie quoted in World Entertainment News Network, Feb 25th 2008).
- Singer and band merging into one.
*Interview with Harry Maslim Earl Slick et al is taken from ‘The Return Of The Thin White Duke’ by Richard Cromelin – Circus Magazine, March 1976.
**Images from Wild Is The Wind promo video. Directed by David Mallet.
Copyright © 2012 William Henry Prince.
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