A.V. Undercover veterans Shearwater came by the studio earlier this year to tackle a song from the main list—business as usual, right? But a couple of days before they showed up, Jonathan Meiburg asked if we might want to film his band covering the entirety of David Bowie’s Lodger, too. Why would we say no to that? So as a special pre-season bonus for Undercover 2016, here’s Shearwater covering Lodger from start to finish, along with an essay by Meiburg explaining his relationship to the classic record. Shearwater’s latest is the excellent Jet Plane And Oxbow.
I rediscovered David Bowie’s Lodger last year after some rough traveling. In the span of a couple of months I’d had unnerving encounters with the world’s largest spiders in Guyana and a jaguar in Brazil; I’d hugged my knees in terror in Hyderabad’s traffic and asked for divine intervention on a jetliner circling the Persian Gulf as it dumped its fuel for an emergency landing. When I finally got home, I wanted to hide in a corner with a blanket over my head and never go outside again. Listening to Lodger over and over somehow helped the world seem less frightening.
But—why? Everything about the album seems wrong at first. It was billed as the final volume of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, but it isn’t at all conclusive; for that matter, it wasn’t even recorded in Berlin. Bowie didn’t follow its release with a tour—just an indelibly weird Saturday Night Live performance and a series of videos in which he wrecked pointedly flimsy sets.
And as a collection of songs, it seems eclectic to the point of being slapdash. ”Yassassin” was an attempt to invent Turkish reggae; “Move On” is “All The Young Dudes” played backward. The singles “D.J.,” “Look Back In Anger,” and “Boys Keep Swinging” form an ungainly lump in the middle of the record, like a cow that’s been swallowed by a python. All the songs end in question marks, fading out on one uneasy groove or another, and the album lacks the sonic majesty of “Heroes” or Low. Lodger’s mix is thin and disoriented, and Adrian Belew’s guitar pyrotechnics are shoved down till they’re tinny and contorted, the opposite of Robert Fripp’s explosive work on “Heroes”.
So it’s a little hard to say quite why Lodger, more than either of its predecessors, cheered me up. Maybe it’s the gift Bowie had for making you feel that his mania, his confusion, had something to do with your own, that no matter how strange and isolated you felt, you weren’t actually alone there. So many of the lyrics resonate with me: “Red sail action / Wake up in the wrong town / Boy, I really get around” sums up a dislocated thrill well known to anyone who’s been on a tour; the high-speed slideshow of “African Night Flight” nails the queasy feeling of a trip gone sour: “Sick of you / Sick of me / Lust for the free life / Quashed and maimed / Like a valuable loved one / Left unnamed.”
And touring was on my mind. Our new record was coming out soon, and I wanted to do something special in the live show. I was listening to Lodger for the third time in a row one Saturday morning, dancing and singing along, and thought: What if we just played this?
It almost seemed like Bowie had thrown down a gauntlet; he often named Lodger as one of his favorite albums, but rarely played any of its songs. But the songs sounded fairly playable to me, with a little work. (“Heroes” would be a different story.) It might be an odd stunt, but whatever: We’d just play some of it at the end of our sets, and the audience could leave if they wanted. We were taking the album apart in rehearsals and figuring out how it worked when I received a text from a friend in the middle of the night that just read: “Bowie.”
Hours later, the news was everywhere. It was a weird feeling; our little project suddenly felt much heavier, and I wondered for a minute if we should put it aside. But it was also kind of liberating. I had secretly hoped that if we did a really good job, DB might hear about it one way or another; maybe I might even get a note from him, or his people, and I could invite him to our New York show! All that vanished in an instant. Now it was just music.
But what music. Lodger turned out to be trickier (and more fun) to play than I’d imagined, and as we peeled back its sonic layers, it revealed clever, coherent structures under the surface of its paranoia and bewilderment. I did my best to serve up ersatz versions of Adrian Belew and Carlos Alomar’s great guitar leads (difficult), and to sing without just aping Bowie (nearly impossible). We also had to invent suitable endings for each of the songs. When we finally started playing them live, a few at a time, I think we were all surprised how fresh and alive they felt, almost 40 years after their release.
At a sold-out night in Chicago we decided what the hell, and did the whole thing as a 45-minute encore—and the crowd went nuts. It had a cumulative effect I hadn’t expected. We were still buzzing when we rolled in to The A.V. Club the next day for Undercover, and I asked if we could play Lodger for them, too. (Thanks for going for it, A.V. Club). We even brought in the fluorescent work lights we used in our shows to give it an Isolar II-style atmosphere.
There are plenty of funny moments, since we played it in one go; to my chagrin, I forget my favorite lyric in “Red Money” (“Reet-petite and how-de-do!”), and you’ll see my mic stand fracture on “D.J.” and collapse midway through “Look Back In Anger.” Normally I’d have stopped, but that one’s like a hundred-yard dash for the bass and drums, and I didn’t want to put Sadie and Josh through a second take, so I dove to the floor and kept rolling. Listening back, I think it turned out pretty well, though I bet it looks ridiculous. But I also can’t think of a better metaphor for Lodger itself. In the weirdest and best way, it’s inspirational music.