Tremble Like Flowers

This was almost 10 years ago. I was half asleep, half awake. My alarm was set to a radio station, WERS from Emerson College in Boston, and as it came on I was drifting in and out of consciousness… perhaps more balanced between the two than ever before. I heard a little piano, than an acoustic guitar. I thought maybe the piano was from the station was getting interference from a neighbor station. The guitar quickly settled into a very gentle, understated groove. I can’t tell you how fast I knew the song – I got it right away. Within seconds, maybe five. But I couldn’t believe it. It sounded so different than the original version… could it really be? I was also surprised at how recognizable the tune was. There is very little to go off of, but it couldn’t have been anything else. I knew the proof was coming soon – how many song lyrics start right off with the title? A croaky voice crooned, “Let’s dance.” I laughed in my head, giddy with what a wildly different interpretation this was shaping up to be. And I was still completely drunk on sleep, gravity was at a delicious quadruple strength.

As he started the chorus, I was on the edge of my seat, lying in bed, ready to go back to sleep if it came, wondering how he was going to handle the climax which is just bombastic in the original and that wouldn’t make sense for how he was doing it and I didn’t think he could pull that off anyway. Then he creeps up into falsetto and tenderly sings, “Because my love for you / would break my heart in two / if you should fall / into my arms / and tremble like flowers.” What a perfect delivery for those words! I was practically ecstatic, and still totally sleep-drunk.

The piano crept back in and confused me again. More importantly, I didn’t want to lose the signal. A harmonica came in for an instrumental section. Not playing too many notes, it was weird-sounding, but fit perfectly, thought that piano was still wandering in. Well, the song goes along, just killing me the whole way through. It ends with him singing, in falsetto like before, “if you should fall / into my arms / and tremble like flowers” several more times, letting me enjoy that bit of prettiness and contrast against Bowie’s original.

What a 5 minutes! That was a perfect, and unrepeatable, listening experience.

Well, after that, I had to get up and make some notes, then email the station later that morning to find out who did that. M. Ward was the answer and I have been a fan since – he’s quite a fine guitar player. Actually, I’m not such a fan of his more popular work with Zooey Deschanel in She and Him, but then I haven’t given them much of a chance. He’s got a new album coming out soon, I hope it’s good!

Here’s a video of Bowie’s original:

For the record, Bowie sings, “tremble like a flower,” but it sounds like Ward has it like the title of this post.

Nice Moves

Let’s do a video today, “Ashes to Ashes” by David Bowie. There is some conjecture as to the true meaning of the song – whether it’s really about Major Tom in space, or drug problems here on earth, perhaps Bowie’s own. I’ll let others hash out all that.

Don’t ask me why he’s dressed as a clown. I think it was just a phase (and goes with the album cover for Scary Monsters – see the bottom of this post).

OK, here’s what I really like about this song. “Space Oddity” certainly doesn’t shy away from pathos and alienation, but for revisiting his first big hit, Bowie doesn’t just try to cash in on it. “Ashes to Ashes” has such interesting sounds (futuristic, spacy… and a particularly woozy guitar line in places) and somehow succeeds in grooving to this ambivalent-to-alienated/depressed funk. But there are a couple things in particular which really sell this song for me.

First, at the climax of the chorus, “Strung out in heaven’s high, Hitting an all-time low” the words “all-time low” are not belted out. Instead they are delivered with some reservation, perhaps with a bit of “it’s a shame” in his voice. And rather than having some musical climax at the end of the chorus, those words are accompanied by a return to the woozy funk from the beginning of the song.

Next, in the section where he sings, “I never done good things, I never done bad things…” he sings (speaks, really) a background vocal which repeats the words in a low and echoed voice. What kills me is that the last “word” is woh-o-oh, and even that little bit of decoration is repeated by the low voice. I love that! I hope after recording that, they all had a good laugh. For all the seriousness in the song, that detail is hilarious.

Finally, here we have David Bowie, one of the hippest stars in the world, who had just spent several years in bohemian Berlin, which was preceded by his glam phase, singing a moody and heavy song to woozy funk. Perfect time to wrap things up with a nursery rhyme, don’t you think? “My mother said to get things done / You’d better not mess with Major Tom.” I read that he got that idea from a Danny Kaye song, “Inchworm,” from the movie Hans Christian Anderson, but still rock and roll stars can pull that off convincingly? If you can think of some other nursery rhymes in rock, please tell me about them in the comments!