Translationships (V)

Translationships 5: David Bowie’s REALITY Tour x Dublin – Cactus & Slip Away as Translationship

by Magdalena Edwards

TRANSLATIONSHIPS is a column by Magdalena Edwards. Magdalena is a writer, actor, and translator born in Santiago, Chile, and based in Los Angeles, California. Magdalena translates from Spanish and Portuguese into English, including the work of Clarice Lispector, Márcia Tiburi, Silviano Santiago, Óscar Contardo, Nicanor Parra, and Raúl Zurita. Her translation of Julio Cortázar’s Letters From Mom will be published by Sublunary Editions on January 25, 2022. Magdalena is currently working on a book-length project titled Translationships. More on Twitter @magda8lena & Instagram @msmagda8lena.

Translationships (V), read by Magdalena Edwards

“Was not writing poetry a secret transaction, a voice answering a voice?”
Virginia Woolf – ORLANDO

How quickly everything can change. I realize now that I’ve been stalling the writing of this text because an anniversary is upon me. One year ago, in mid-October 2020, my dearest accomplice and the godfather of my three children Adrian Carpusor, known by all of us affectionately as Adi, passed from a massive heart attack. I wrote about him in my very first Translationships column, and I find myself writing or talking about him and our translationship, our conversations, and our shared obsessions, all the time. I also now find myself meeting new friends – what a joyful occasion for any adult person, let’s be honest – who I wish could meet my dear old friend who is no longer with me in earthling form.

About five weeks ago I met a new friend at GoldDiggers, a bar and live music venue in East Hollywood where the cast of J.D. Mata’s A NIGHT AT THE CHICANO ROCK OPERA – a Hollywood Fringe Festival show where I played a go-go dancer named Sirena – had been gathering post-performance for a celebratory toast and – on this Friday night – a few hours of dancing. Sometime after midnight, our celebratory crew’s last standing few – we were seven – decided it was time to go home for the night so we walked out of the bar and onto Santa Monica Blvd. Our show’s lead Antonella, played by Chrissi Erickson, and her beau Chris took off to their car in one direction, and the rest of us made our way on foot up North Wilton to where we had parked in front of The Griff Theater.

As we walked, we moved and talked in two sub-groupings. In front, my friend Justin Lack, an insanely talented drummer and all-around confidant (we’ve performed together in multiple shows), and his two friends Gina and Natalie, with whom he plays in an Elvis x Gene Simmons cover band called Elviss Simmons and the Memphis Strutters. And at the rear, myself and my new friend M, who was talking my ear off about his life. M talked and talked and talked, almost without stopping for breath. He had everything to say, as if he had been waiting for 20 months (circa February 2020) to have an empathic stranger listen to him. He spoke like a character in a novel whose speech is pages and pages of uninterrupted flow. M’s stream of consciousness unfurled a few paces west along Santa Monica Blvd and then north along North Wilton until we got to our cars and stood – for another 45, or maybe 75 minutes – talking. We talked so much, our final constellation of five, that at one point one of us said, “we’re like the support group that has ended and continues the conversation in the parking lot and goes all night…” We all laughed. It was good to laugh in a group like this, and then pick up the conversation and keep going.

Photo: Magdalena Edwards

When the pandemic first hit and I was relegated to the minor key of life at home with the people I live with and our known conversations and silences, I read articles about how humans give empathy to, and receive empathy from, strangers – and I started to think about how this reciprocal praxis had been thwarted by lockdown life.[1] I listened to M continue to flow as we walked north on North Wilton on that late September Friday night past midnight and I was reminded that because I often have much to say, whenever I come across a person who speaks as much as – or more than – I think I do, I’m tickled. One of the things I eventually learned about M is that he had worked, for many years, as a roadie and thus had travelled the world. And then I found out that M had been a roadie on the North America leg of David Bowie’s REALITY tour in the early 2000s. REALITY was Bowie’s very last tour, which was interrupted when he had a massive heart attack, first mis-diagnosed as nerve damage, on stage in late June 2004, followed by emergency heart surgery.[2]

I started listening, as an eager interlocutor and obsessive who does her homework, to David Bowie’s albums on repeat and the one that hooked me in and still has her claws in me is “A Reality Tour (Bonus Track Version) [Live]” – which was released in 2010 and recorded in Dublin in November 2003.

Let me tell you about Bowie singing in Dublin in November 2003, as far as I understand it after listening to the recording on repeat day and night for the last almost five weeks. Bowie talks to the crowd joyfully and they sing along with him with equivalent – if not amplified – joy. As Virginia Woolf’s *beyond* unreliable narrator says in her masterpiece love letter to Vita Sackville West, the novel and anti-biography also known as ORLANDO, “Was not writing poetry a secret transaction, a voice answering a voice?” And that’s exactly correct. Bowie and the crowd were not-so-secretly transacting a kind of poetry that night in the fair city of Dublin. And one of the most moving things for me about listening to this recording over and over again, in addition to Bowie’s lovingly lyrical exchange with the crowd, and the way his Irish roots emerge from the music in his voice when he says words like “mischief” and “battle” and “no matter” – is the way he shares his musical genius with the work of other musicians through several covers that he plays on stage.

The fifth song Bowie plays that November night in Dublin is the song CACTUS originally by the Boston, Massachusetts band the Pixies and from their 1988 album SURFER ROSA. As I listened to this song over and over again – one I thought I knew fairly well since my high school boyfriend had put it on one of the first mixtapes he had ever made me and sent via snail mail to my new address when I moved from Los Angeles to Washington DC in the middle of high school – I noticed a few things. First, Bowie makes an interesting translation choice at the end of the first line. Here are the original lyrics, with indications of Bowie’s translationship interventions as far as I’ve understood them at this point, for reference:

Sitting here wishing on a cement floor
Just wishing that I had just something you wore

I put it on when I go lonely
Will [Won’t] you take off your dress and send it to me?

I miss your kissin’ [kisses] and I miss your head
And a letter in your writing doesn’t mean you’re not dead
[So] Run outside in the desert heat
Make your dress all wet and send it to me
I miss your soup and I miss your bread
And a letter in your writing doesn’t mean you’re not dead
So spill your breakfast and drip your wine
Just wear that dress when you dine

P-I-X-I-E-S [D – A – V – I – [Z?]]

[Get it on, bang a gong, yeah]

Sitting here wishing on a cement floor
Just wishing that I had just something you wore

[So] Bloody your hands on a cactus tree
Wipe it on your dress and send it to me

[Just] Sitting here wishing on a cement floor
Just wishing that I had just something you wore

I didn’t notice Bowie’s tweaks at all at first. They began to emerge the more and more I listened. The first that struck me is not a change in lyrics, but rather in how the lyric is sung. At the end of the first line – “Sitting here wishing on a cement floor” – he takes the final word “floor” and drops his voice down (here I wish I had a pitch perfect ear so I could tell you from what note down to what), and the shift in sound itself carries him (and us) down down down to the floor. In the Pixies original version the same note carries across the whole line. For several listenings I was taken up by this choice.

Photo: M

Eventually another of Bowie’s translationship tweaks emerged. In the middle of the song, after the PIXIES chant “P-I-X-I-E-S” – which Bowie’s back-up singers change to “D-A-V-I-[Z?]” – something totally unexpected happens. A new song begins. What was it? I felt like I knew it, but I didn’t recognize it. I listened to Bowie’s studio recording of CACTUS on his album HEATHEN, and this new song was not there. I started thinking about Bowie smuggling a “secret transaction, a voice answering a voice” on stage with him in Dublin and sharing it with his audience – a kind of sweetmeat or sliver of cactus to eat – and I was puzzled. Who would know the answer to this? I spent a few days puzzling further, and enjoying my question, which I spoke about with different friends in conversations where I referred to Bowie as a translator. I could hear my voice getting excited about his vibrant mis-translation of the Pixies’ CACTUS and as I was trying to figure out why he did what he did I started to understand that soon enough I would write about it, and here we are.

Eventually I texted M to ask him. What was going on in this song, and did he remember if Bowie performed it this way all the time during REALITY North America? He wrote me back with a link to T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” and then wrote three texts:

“This is the guitar riff & lyrics he teases in the middle of CACTUS”

“He might have done that at a few shows but that was not a consistent part of CACTUS that I remember”

“Tony Visconti produced both DB [David Bowie] & TR [T. Rex]”

This third text was something I really began to appreciate – because I felt that Bowie was, by incorporating T. Rex into his rendition of CACTUS, giving a nod of appreciation to his producer as a musical mind and creative spirit who nurtured him and T. Rex and countless others. It takes a village, people. It takes a village. Singular genius is a put-on and something we should all be wise to disbelieve. This gesture of credit and admiration and conviviality toward Tony Visconti really made me love Bowie even more. As I continued and continued to re-listen to CACTUS, by the Pixies and by Bowie in Dublin and by Bowie in studio, and now with the full song “Bang a Gong (Get It On)” by T. Rex, I realized that the opening riff in Bowie’s Dublin performance of CACTUS is the opening of T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong” – so Bowie teases T. Rex from the very beginning of his rendition of the Pixies song. I loved the triangulation Bowie-Pixies-T. Rex – and its additional reverberation triangulation Bowie-Tony Visconti-T. Rex – and the “secret transaction, a voice answering a voice.”

David Bowie and Mick Ronson on Train to Aberdeen, 1973 by Mick Rock
Image courtesy of Fellow + Path Galleries and Mr Musichead Gallery

Here is another secret transaction I’d like to unveil. While revising this column on translationship and Bowie with my stellar editor Chris Clarke, we exchanged commentaries and memories – so much so, that I see a “Part 2” to this Bowie meditation (staged as a conversation between Chris and me) in the not-so-distant future. One of the commentaries Chris sent me regards the moment in CACTUS when the Pixies spell out their name “P-I-X-I-E-S” – which Bowie translates as “D – A – V – I – [Z?].” Chris sent me a long quote from Josh Frank and Caryn Ganz’s Fool the World: The Oral History of a Band Called Pixies (Virgin Books 2005), which I’ll excerpt here: “Bass guitarist Kim Deal […] later commented on the interlude: ‘You can hear them spelling ‘Pixies’ in the break, which T. Rex did in one of their songs [“The Groover”], ‘T-R-E-X,’ and they were copying it.” To summarize: the Pixies copy (translate) T. Rex and then Bowie copies (translates) the Pixies copying (translating) T. Rex and so we have the triangulation x translationship performed – “a voice answering a voice” – in this one moment in Bowie’s “live in Dublin” rendition of the Pixies song CACTUS.

The second cover song from Bowie’s Dublin show that I want to discuss here is “Slip Away” and what I have to say about it is fairly simple. This is something I came to as I listened to the REALITY x Dublin (live) album over and over again while driving my children around Los Angeles (to school, to soccer, to the supermarket, to the beach, to a friend’s house and home again). (My poor children! How they endure their obsessive mother. I’ve written about my obsessive listening habits before, in a tribute essay to Prince when he passed in 2016.) “Slip Away” is a cover, or a mistranslation, of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”: 

Twinkle twinkle Uncle Floyd
Watching all the world
And war torn
How I wonder where you are
Sailing over
Coney Island
Twinkle twinkle Uncle Floyd
We were dumb
But you were fun, boy
How I wonder where you are

And I’ll finish with this. I wonder where my dear friend Adi is today and I turn to Bowie as he sings “Slip Away”: “Twinkle twinkle Uncle Floyd / Watching all the world” – and Bowie continues, “Some of us will always stay behind” and some of us will “Slip away” . . . And I’d like to think that Adi is smiling from where he is watching over me as I meet my new friends such as M, and as I ask my friends – old and new – to help me as I puzzle over things, whether it’s T. Rex’s sudden appearance in Bowie’s version of the Pixies’ CACTUS or whatever it may be.

[1] Jenny Anderson, “A Harvard Sociologist explains why we confide in strangers” (Quartz)

[2]David Bowie’s Years as a Rock Recluse” (Rolling Stone) and Martin Kielty, “David Bowie Bandmates Recall his Heart Attack on Final Tour” (Diffuser)

Magdalena Edwards writes the Translationships column for Hopscotch. Her published translations include the work of Noemi Jaffe, Clarice Lispector, Silviano Santiago, Márcia Tiburi, Óscar Contardo, Nicanor Parra, and Raúl Zurita. Her translation of Julio Cortázar’s Letters from Mom will be published by Sublunary Editions on January 25, 2022. Find her on Twitter @magda8lena & Instagram @msmagda8lena.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, October 5, 2021

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