In this review/essay Matthew Boswell takes a look at Lowdeine Chronicles by Nick Power and Andrew Taylor, their neatly conceptualized response to David Bowie‘s album Low. (You can listen to the album by clicking on the title. Ed.)
Lowdeine Chronicle by Nick Power and Andrew Taylor
Nick Power and Andrew Taylor: Lowdeine Chronicles. £10. erbacce-press. (Cover artwork: Steven Cherry, 2019)
The release of David Bowie’s eleventh studio album, Low, in January 1977, a few days after his thirtieth birthday, marked the beginning of a prolific period of creativity for the iconic musician, driven by collaborations with a diverse set of artists and producers. For around two years, he had been struggling with a failing marriage, a costly legal dispute with his former manager, controversies over what appeared to be fascist comments and gestures, and an ‘astronomic’ cocaine addiction. Bowie recalls a dangerous time: ‘I was out of my mind, totally crazed.’ But having moved from Los Angeles to West Berlin in late 1976 — famously sharing an apartment with Iggy Pop — he immersed himself in the underground scenes of a city that proved to be the perfect milieu for two young, ambitious artists seeking to escape the trappings of fame. The cost of living was cheap, they could move around in virtual anonymity, and the city’s most abundant drug, heroin, was not to their taste. In a little over two years, Bowie released Low, Heroes and Lodger — forming the ‘Berlin trilogy’ of albums — while also cowriting and producing Iggy Pop’s seminal solo albums The Idiot and Lust for Life.
The foundations for Low lay in a soundtrack Bowie had originally scored and recorded in France for The Man Who Fell to Earth, which had been rejected by the film’s director, Nicolas Roeg. Experimenting with electronic instruments and audio processing tools, Bowie was increasingly moving away from the pop template of earlier albums into more ambient, avant-garde territory. And he had the perfect collaborators in Brian Eno — who contributed extensively to Low as a musician and composer — and co-producer Tony Visconti. Both decamped to Berlin with boxes full of electronic tricks. When asked what the Eventide H910 Harmonizer did, Visconti is famously said to have observed: ‘It fucks with the fabric of time.’ Initially rejected by Bowie’s label, RCA, who urged him to return to Philadelphia to record something more like Young Americans, Low initially received a mixed critical response. However, the album performed well in the UK and USA album charts and is now considered a classic, regularly ranking highly in polls of the greatest album of all-time.
In their introductions to Lowdeine Chronicles, co-authors Nick Power and Andrew Taylor explain how Bowie’s introspective album provided them with the inspiration for their own collaboration. While recovering from operations for wisdom tooth removal and appendicitis that took place a decade apart, in 2008 and 2018 respectively, both found themselves obsessively listening to Low while under the influence of the painkiller Codeine. Power describes dislocating afternoons, with the album constituting ‘the sound of purgatory almost, some afterlife waiting room in the future’. While Low is sometimes referenced directly in Lowdeine Chronicles, as when friends are overheard in the back bedroom of a flat in Glasgow singing along to ‘Sound and Vision’, the ‘Lowdeine’ afternoons more importantly provide an ambiance — what Power calls the ‘Low frequency, that dull serenity’ — that pervades a collection concerned with various borderline states, and geographical and psychological hinterlands. The sci-fi synthesizers and abstract choral chants of the album’s more experimental second side, in particular, provide a hallucinatory sonic texture that shapes much of this coherently incoherent sequence. The ‘Lowdeine’ state is neatly thematized in Steven Cherry’s cover design, which references both the colour scheme of the Low artwork and the molecular composition of Codeine.
Like Bowie’s personae, the poems of Lowdeine Chronicles take many different forms. They frequently reflect the influence of the Beats: Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs loom large, especially in the conversational, jazzy style of poems such as ‘Dream Fever’ and the drugged-up transcendentalism of the collection-closing ‘Morphine Prayer’. There are stream of consciousness poems, short prose poems, and cut-ups. The influence of avant-garde poets such as George Perec and Thomas A. Clark is signalled in more minimalist works such as ‘Gare Montparnasse’ and ‘In Praise of Codeine’, in which dry observations pop off the page like pills from a packet, including the collection-defining aperçu: ‘Codeine consumption is not to be considered romantic, but a necessity when in pain with added benefits’. The overall effect of these formal shifts is to make the collection seem to flicker in and out of focus like the postoperative afternoons that gave rise to it, with woozy imagery alternating with detached observation and moments of clarity: ‘Oh yeah, clear as a new pane the mind / on morphine’.
If these poems are about convalescence, then necessity seems to have dictated that this took place as much on the move as on the sofa. For the last two decades, Power has been a member of the Liverpudlian psychedelic rock band The Coral, and his contributions document both the poetic and the prosaic aspects of a musician’s itinerant existence, as reflected in titles such as ‘My Life on the Autobahns and A-Roads of Europe’ and ‘Meadowhall Interchange‘. The collection is full of ‘Airports, sea ports & trains, / old signs. Underpasses’, with Power frequently drawing creative inspiration from these journeys. ‘My Life on the Autobahns and A-Roads of Europe’ begins: ‘Transience is the friend of / imagination’, while ‘Game Plan’ correspondingly quotes the legendary boxing trainer Cus D’Amato: ‘motion is the enemy / of anxiety’. Yet nostalgia for what now, in the face of Brexit and coronavirus, seems like the fading dream of trans-European travel, coexists with reflections on more mundane forms of displacement, as in the prose poem ‘Re-Run’, in which the speaker ghosts around a new home ‘staring at faded family photographs that are caked in packing dust; ornaments from the old house’.
Given the conceptualization of the collection, it would be tempting to read the preoccupation with travel and transportation as an overarching metaphor for recovery: ‘the sense of internal cadence / and the body / righting itself’ having been subtly changed by sickness. But many of the collection’s journeys are far more ambiguous and unsettling. Centrally, while the poets’ bodies eventually heal from their operations, the past is repeatedly figured as an open wound. The penultimate poem, ‘M6 Toll Diary’, suggests that the only journey worth making is the one that takes you home, with the speaker in the ‘back of a seven-seater people carrier’ having swallowed two Diazepam tablets in a service station. Looking skyward, he finds himself ‘navigating faint star maps that appear slowly with the encroaching dusk’. If this sounds sentimental, it is — profoundly so, in the way that the best pop songs are, full of heartache and longing — not least because the moment recalls an earlier poem, ‘The Halo Kid’, in which the speaker identifies ‘the brightest and most beautiful star’ as his ‘dead friend Kinsella’.
Inevitably, Bowie has a prime place in the bright constellation described in ‘The Halo Kid’, along with Brian Eno, The Wailers and the Welsh boxer Joe Calzaghe (‘Just because of the nights he gave me and my friends all those years ago, up there on the big screen, and for the credit we never thought he received from the world’). Perhaps the most poignant aspect of this collection is that, even as Codeine opens these poets’ minds to the secrets of an intimate and ‘infinite universe’, it is haunted by the prospect of falling to earth with a bump. Recalling the more subdued Bowie who abandoned outlandish personae such as Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane and the Thin White Duke in order to battle cocaine addiction in Berlin during the Cold War, Lowdeine Chronicles ultimately stands as a moving testament to the power of creativity and artistic collaboration in the face of pain, suffering and loss: a way to make sense of the world, once the drugs wear off and reality takes hold.
Matthew Boswell has published books, reviews and articles about pop music, culture, literature and film in diverse places, including The Los Angeles Review of Books, Arts Professional and 3:AM Magazine. He is currently working on a book entitled Virtual Holocaust Memory with Antony Rowland.