At my writers’ workshop last Monday I read out a piece (cut-and-pasted below) about a David Bowie cover version of the song Wild is the Wind. As Clive James wrote in North Face of Soho (see this post: http://www.martinwestlake.eu/north-face-of-soho/), ‘The dizzy speed with which the echo of a sense memory kills time continues to astound me.’ My piece was about how, if I closed my eyes, Bowie’s 1976 recording of the song still immediately transported me back into a South Harrow living room. But I realised in retrospect that it was also about the metamorphosis of a song (written by Dimitri Tiomkin and Ned Washington) through three incarnations, from the 1957 original (performed by Johnny Mathis), to Nina Simone’s sultry 1968 version, to David Bowie’s sublime (to my mind) 1976 rendition. All three versions are good in their own way. There have been other covers (including some notably crappy ones) but, as I wrote to a friend, for me Simone’s and Bowie’s transformations of the sunny fifties ballad into something so much more lyrical and, well, wild are good examples of their genius (if that’s not too strong a word). In any case, I have decided to post my exercise below and you can listen to the three versions to which I refer on You Tube:
Wild is the WindI am, and always have been, a great fan of David Bowie and of his music. I grew up with him and it, from Ziggy onwards. I have many favourites among his albums and each triggers special and specific memories, as do particular tracks. His 1976 Station to Station, for example, immediately triggers memories of the Nic Roeg film, The Man Who Fell to Earth, although none of the music on the album was used on the film. The LP cover, though, shows a still from the film, and that was enough for an eradicable connection to be made. It is the same with the various tracks on this rich and at times impenetrable album. Bowie chose to sing Wild is the Wind after having heard Nina Simone’s 1966 recording. The cover is considered one of the finest vocal performances of Bowie’s career. But I cannot hear it without immediately being transported back to X’s living room in South Harrow. X, a school contemporary, was the third of four boys. I also came from a family of four boys, so we had that in common. His South Harrow home would normally have been off of the beaten track for me. The pubs we favoured were up on the hill and if I ever went his way it would normally be on a bus on my way to the Piccadilly line station further along the Northolt Road. Brendan’s two older brothers were deeply into music. Somehow, they had the funds to indulge their passion, thus enabling Brendan to be much more musically informed than the rest of us. One day, Brendan insisted that I just had to come home with him. The new Bowie album was brilliant, he insisted. So I took the bus with him after school, going to his house for the first time. I remember walking down a Metroland street not dissimilar to my own. The O’Dwyers’ house was on a corner. He showed me into a large and light living room and I could hardly believe my eyes. The whole of one wall, from door to door and from ceiling to ceiling was covered in shelves full of LPs. It was an Ali Baba’s cave for me. He climbed up on a chair and pulled out the distinctive cover of Station to Station. ‘You’ve got to listen to this track,’ he said, putting on Wild is the Wind. From the opening guitar riff I was hooked. It is brilliantly constructed and played, slowly building to its crescendo and then diminishing, much like the wind at the end of the storm. And, yes, Bowie sings it in an entirely distinctive way, always coming in very late off the beat – a trick he liked to repeat in his live performances – and in a genuflection to Simone, howling gently, like the wind, the wild wind. And those lyrics:
Like the leaf clings to the tree,
Oh, my darling, cling to me
For we’re like creatures in the wind,
And wild is the wind.
If I listen to that track and close my eyes I am back in X’s Metroland living room. I can picture it still: that wall of records, the afternoon light flooding in through the suburban net curtains, and an extraordinary performance of an extraordinary song. A moment of almost religious revelation for two eighteen year-olds.