I’ve moaned a few times about how the great artists of the Sixties and Seventies struggled during the Keyboard Eighties. The great David Bowie is no exception, his worst crimes against humanity being Never Let Me Down and the hideous “Dancing In the Street” duet with Mick Jagger.
My Bowie love runs deep — so deeply, in fact, that I sometimes forget that normal human beings only know him as that “Serious Moonlight” Eighties guy with the suits and the poofy hair, or as the guy who did “Changes” and “Fame.” Those are great songs, but the Bowie catalogue is a deep and wonderful thing that begins in 1964 with the King Bees’ “Liza Jane” and sadly ends with 2003’s Reality. I guess everybody deserves to hang up his or her cleats eventually, but I hold out hope that we’ll see another album eventually.
Along with the official releases Bowie fanatics have bootlegs, remixes, soundtracks, and b-sides galore. Building a Bowie collection is not for the faint of heart. With a catalogue so broad and deep it is no wonder that some true nuggets have never made it to your playlist, and of those nuggets “Let Me Sleep Beside You” is the one you need immediately.
A big part of Bowie’s appeal is his “chameleon” persona, always changing — Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke — you know the drill. Early in his career I don’t think that this was quite so contrived; rather, he was simply a kid trying to find his style, his voice. He mimicked Little Richard, blues artists, whatever, trying on musical styles like suits of clothes with his early bands The King Bees, The Konrads, the Lower Third, and the Manish Boys. There are probably others — I’m not a historian, just a geek.
And speaking of geeks, young David Bowie even tried on the persona of Anthony Newley for his first album, 1967’s David Bowie. In the United States at least, “Let Me Sleep Beside You” did not appear on this album, but it was recorded during that period. My first encounter with the song was on an advance sampler for a “Bowie At the BBC” project that was cancelled and later resurrected. The song is so superior to the other Deram material (the label that released David Bowie) that the song hit me hard. Here is what I heard — the live version recorded at the BBC:
I think it might be the earnestness in his undeveloped voice, and in the guitar’s voice for that matter. Maybe it has something to do with the soft/loud/soft/loud dynamic. And though the lyrics are awfully cryptic they are oddly romantic.
Now here is where things get interesting. In 2001 Bowie re-recorded a bunch of his earliest songs for an album that was never released. Toy is now all over the intergooglewebtubes, and it is audio crack for Bowie fanatics (or at least for me). I love hearing artists’ progress, sort of like a peek behind the curtain. One of my favorite albums is Glenn Gould’s A State Of Wonder, which captures the pianist performing Bach’s Goldberg Variations twice, twenty-six years apart. The exact same music, first played by a boy and then again by a man. It’s truly startling.
Here is “Let Me Sleep Beside You” performed by the fully realized Bowie from 2001’s unreleased Toy when he was at the peak of his super powers. The voice is there, the cadence, the melodrama:
Listen, there is no reason that this should be a lost song. This is as good as it gets, people. Fortunately there are folks out there with actual talent who agree with me, and they’re keeping the greatest Bowie song you’ve never heard alive.
The Swigs include a cover on their new album, Johnson Family Values, which I can’t believe you haven’t downloaded yet. It’s only six bucks — why are you still here? I really like their take. They strip the song down to a sort of Seventies bluesy rocker, but somehow manage to keep the tenderness.
I asked Kevin Henderson, singer/guitarist for the band, why they chose to cover such a deep cut:
I think it’s a beautiful love song, period. I was listening to this tune and “Memory of a Free Festival”… I think they’re an overlooked period for Bowie. Also, I like to take certain great songs and ‘Swigs them, turn them into something different, like putting them in a blender with Crazy Horse or something.
Here’s their version: The Swigs “Let Me Sleep Beside You”
Tawny Ellis recorded a version for her 2006 album Shelter. Here’s her take:
I have always appreciated and loved Bowie’s work. I covered a few songs of his in my live performances in the past.
I heard “Let me Sleep Beside You” for the first time as a live version on some lost collection of his songs. I wondered how it could be that it existed without me knowing for so long. Bowie said that his Mum didn’t like the song so much so he buried it.
I felt compelled to cover it because for me it felt like so many of my feelings and emotions about being sheltered as a young girl living in Utah and moving to the big city, out on my own still a teenager. The loss of innocence that I lived through…it really takes me back to that discovery of meeting people who would change me forever: lines like: “Child you’re a woman now / your heart and soul are free” and “Lock away your childhood and throw away the key / now the streets and city sounds will burn your eyes as coals.”
She picks up the song’s pace, drives it along at a good clip that makes it even more urgent. Good stuff, well worth your time. I’m looking forward to October when her new album I To You is released. You can see, read and hear more about Tawny Ellis at www.tawnyellis.com and at this quaint little shop I’ve been hearing about that I think the kids call “the iTunes”: http://itunes.apple.com/us/artist/tawny-ellis/id210363657
And finally I’d like to draw your attention to this wonderful acoustic cover by “Guitarad” on Youtube. This is a guy after my own heart: Pick up the guitar and love the goddamned song just because it’s beautiful and it feels good. Here’s why “Let Me Sleep Beside You” matters to him:
Having been a Bowie fan since 1969 it is very difficult to choose a favourite but I can remember listening to The World Of David Bowie [note: UK release] and just loving this track. It’s a great song to play live and still surprises people when you tell them the year it was written !
Here’s Guitarad’s version:
So there you have it: The greatest Bowie Song You’ve Never Heard. Now can we please forget that “Dancing In the Street” duet with Mick Jagger? Thank you.
Related “Why It Matters” Pieces:
Young James discovers Bowie: https://jamesostafford.wordpress.com/2010/11/22/just-for-one-day/
Old James buys way too much Bowie: https://jamesostafford.wordpress.com/2011/02/17/15-a-rambling-prologue-to-a-long-overdue-post
James complains about great artists sucking during the Eighties:
My love of beating on an acoustic guitar for my own satisfaction: https://jamesostafford.wordpress.com/2011/06/28/33-i-dont-know-how-you-were-inverted/