THE VIEW FROM THE CHATEAU
A ‘Popular Keyboard’ Featurette, Spring 1976
ALWAYS CRASHING IN THE SAME CAR
Tony M is waiting for his body to be snatched up by the sky. He’s totally convinced that some intangible governing force will momentarily—and without sentiment or acrimony—rinse him from the fabric of history. He’s maintained this general notion through a curtain of sweat ever since I’ve known him, which is now nearing 45 minutes.
We’re loosely following the Oise river, through a landscape that for Francophiles and pastoral romantics approaches the pornographic: Gentle chalky slopes covered in a fruiting pelt of apple orchids, tongues of deciduous reds and yellows leaping through verdant green, hills threaded with hedges and swaying poplars…
Tony M is driving like he wants to tear a hole right through the goddamn middle of it.
He’s steering his burnt orange Austin Allegro with his nose almost touching the steering wheel—his entire head wrapped in his own cigarette smoke. I watch poppies and wildflowers stream by on the road verge.
‘You don’t like it?’
‘Ah I dunno…’
I look at Tony for a full three seconds before letting my eyes drift back to the road.
Tony sends two columns of smoke hissing through his nostrils.
‘It’s not about me not liking the countryside…it’s like…it’s all perfectly composed and…’
Tony begins shaking his head.
‘It’s like an old painting…perfect in form and colour…exact. We’re something smeared against it. A whaddaya call it? An aberration.’
Tony M lifts his eyes from the road and stares wearily into mine.
‘I’m just sayin. Everything in this landscape has a role to play, you know. But I ain’t.’
WHAT IN THE WORLD
‘Here we are, Chateau d’Herouville.’
Tony nods to the weary castle strewn before us, intoning its name with the staggered clarity of an eye examinee.
I can see two figures stalking up the drive, moving their lips in low conversation. It’s George Murray and Dennis Davis, Bowie’s bassist and drummer. They’re leaving. Bowie’s assistant, Coco Schwab, walks with them, her eyes flicking between her feet and our car.
‘You guys leaving already?’
Tony M is colossal at full height, with the build and the moustache luster of a high-end standover man. Dennis Davis looks up and pushes his aviators further up his nose.
‘Yeah man, done.’
George Murray draws a cigarette from his packet of Gitanes with his lips.
By the time I realize he’s pointing at me, Coco Schwab has already answered.
‘He’s a friend of Lee Walker’s. Here to talk to David.’
George Murray grunts, lights his cigarette.
‘You know Lee Walker?’
‘Ah yeah, sort of…’
The last time I saw Lee Walker he was mixing Campari with his own blood and icing the rim of his glass with scavenged cocaine. It was part of his one-man show ‘AMERICAN’T-NO’, which ran for six straight nights (although in actuality more like five and a third). It was here that I first met David Bowie.
‘Lee Walker…So where’s he been at?’
‘Still in California, ‘bout to be a dad I think.’
‘Oh yeah I heard that. Calling the kid Fire Walker.’
Grins break across both our faces.
‘His kid’s first name is going to be “Fire”?’
‘Nah, “Firewalker”, one word.’
‘So the kid’s going to be called “Firewalker…Walker”?’
‘I dunno man. LA…crazy place.’
The ChÂteau d'Hérouville—even before it was host and studio to Bowie and Iggy Pop for the making of Iggy Pop’s ‘The Idiot’—was a delightful shithole. Coco Schwab glides through its rooms, each lavish and ruined in uneven measure. An entire half of the Chateau is closed—occupied by staff to service the rest of the building. Coco drifts up and down stairs with me shuffling behind. There are four different recording studios, a handful of kitchens and bedrooms, four ‘echo chambers’—long rehearsal rooms with bricked-up windows—and two master bedrooms, permanently locked and according to producer Tony Visconti “haunted as all hell.” Actually the whole place feels haunted—and not just in a spectral, ghost-infested way. With its sheets of flaking paint, it’s damp walls and stately decay; it feels like it’s haunting itself.
SOUND AND VISION
I stop by the open doorway in one of the right wing’s studios. A rangy figure is hunched over a small briefcase of electronics, rapping his knuckles against a small pegboard and emitting thunderous metallic noise—like two colliding pieces of corrugated iron. He looks up—sunglasses on, blonde hair in advanced recession. He looks up. It’s Brian Eno.
‘Oh you’re not David.’
‘Nathan Adler…I’m looking for David too…’
‘I’m sure you are…I’m Brian. Sorry about the sunglasses. Having quite a time trying to adjust to the night shift. More of a daytime person I’m afraid…’
Eno’s perfectly sculpted English diction is mesmerizing after the slur and slang of a decade in Los Angeles. I watch Brian pinch the bridge of his nose and move his thumb and forefinger outwards over his eyelids.
‘Must be weird for you starting at one in the morning every day.’
‘Yes, well, not for everyone else as much as me.’
I expected that Brian Eno would be constantly draped over entire walls of synthesizers and spools of tape, his ears drenched in a constant bath of sound. But the studio around Eno is practically vacant. One small blue keyboard sits on a table in front of him, clustered with knobs, a small pegboard stuffed with plugs and wires—and a single black joystick. The whole contraption is around the same size as a small piano accordion. He follows my eyes over his equipment.
‘Yes, it’s a clever little machine, but so hard to create a ‘mood’ for David’s work when my conversation with this thing only travels in one direction…’
‘Your conversation with the keyboard?’
‘Well yes…you see a violin or a guitar can communicate your physical condition while you’re playing it. But this synthesizer cannot. I can only approximate…you can’t hear the tiredness in how I play, can’t detect the days drifting into one another in how I strike the notes, more’s the pity…’
Eno starts hitting his palm against the pegboard, causing more shimmering thunder to spill from the studio’s speakers.
‘It is a lovely little thing though, the Synthi AKS’ he murmurs while pulling at it’s dials. I nod, but he’s not even looking, talking at his synthesizer. ‘Though I must confess, it’s simply awful at airports. They always think it’s a briefcase bomb. And I’ve tried to change my stated occupation on my passport to ‘non-musician’ which, to be perfectly frank, has made things a great deal worse.’
A doe-eyed man with long black hair and an open white shirt pushes his head through the door, looks at Eno, then me.
‘Hello…’ I smile at his back as he leaves.
Eno smiles at me sympathetically, his synthesized thunder continuing to bloom under his twitching palm.
‘He’s the engineer. He used to play in a really great band. All of their songs were around 9 minutes long and about a planet called Kobaa—all songs sung in Kobaan, mind you. I expect he’s looking for David too.’
I’m staring into the pool that Iggy Pop threw David Bowie into during the recording of The Idiot. The same pool that Bowie demanded be exorcised—to rid it of the ‘dark stains’ that lurked in its corners, feeding on light and energy. It’s unclear if its supernatural grime has been expunged, but its worldly grime clearly hasn’t. With the staff wing almost completely vacant the pool is peppered liberally with debris. A few of the pool’s striped lounges are filled with bodies I don’t know, in various states of undress. Four pairs of shoes and a Mercedes hood ornament are lying on the tiled floor of the shallow end.
One of the younger bodies puts down a book and rolls over to face me.
‘You looking for David?’
‘Ah yes…’ I stuff my hands into my pockets, ‘is he around?’ She shrugs.
‘What’s your name?’ My voice is creaking without my consent. I sound like I’m 14 years old with bad skin and an orthopedic shoe.
Luna smiles acridly.
‘Why am I here?’
‘I help design sets. And since we incinerated the last one and David insists on “throwing out the stage and going to live in the real thing”, here I am. Soaking it in. The real thing.
‘Your Bowie impression is quite good.’
‘Thanks, a work in progress.’
Luna reaches under her body and pulls out a small deck of cue cards. She shows me the back of one of the cards, on which is scrawled ‘Oblique Solutions.’
‘I have a game. They’ve been using these in the studio. Random orders, impulsive direction…other stuff’. She flips through the first three cards.
‘…”Feedback recordings into an acoustic situation”…“do the dishes”…“your mistake was hidden intention”…if I say a direction you have to do it. Wanna play?’
‘I really should find David.’
Luna flashes her sour smile—only for an instant—but long enough to exact its desired effect. My hand wafts around my head—a pale imitation of a parting wave—as I retreat into the Chateau’s main hallway, empathizing aloud with dark stains and the pits of swimming pools.
NEW CAREER IN A NEW TOWN
Inside the chateau’s small, plundered library, the lights are almost never extinguished. Books are stacked in small piles and fanned over the floor. Empty bowls have been appropriated as ashtrays. I’ve been in the library countless times in the last few days. Each time it’s unoccupied, but the bowl of ash continues to fill, the shelves continue to evacuate. On a small side table are a mound of freshly selected volumes: Julian Jaynes’ ‘The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind’, J G Ballard’s ‘Crash’ and a small volume of Aleister Crowley’s poems. I flick through a few pages of Crowley.
‘He paces an inane and pointless path
To glut brute appetites, his sole content’
Even his academic tastes seem to map his fraying threshold of sanity.
Bowie no longer believes that one of his backup singers is a vampire, or that two witches and a warlock want his semen for an occult ritual, as he did on two separate occasions in LA. But his paranoia remains—maybe amplified by the chateau’s ancient, crumbling walls. I think about all of this as I remove a ballpoint pen from my pocket and leave a note for him on the right-hand margin of Crowley’s ‘Hymn to Lucifer.’
‘Looking forward to speaking with you David. I was at the funerals of Ziggy and the Duke but didn’t see you at either (joke/sorry) I’ll be around for the next five days, so in terms of the interview, any time is good! Hope it’s all going well – must almost feel like a new career in a new town (smiley face).’
Naturally I begin to regret the letter. But by the time I go back to destroy it the book has vanished.