A Small Plot of Land
I was originally planning on talking about Winky Davey and his Gnomey Abomination in this post, but The Leon Suites are probably a better gateway drug to Bowie’s stranger content, and the bootleg market insanity in particular. Because this topic is cloaked in an intentionally dense tangle of language, I apologize in advance if this gets a little difficult to follow. If anything, the (extremely intentional) confusion will help to convey just how much of an absolute troll Bowie was, and in many ways, still is.
Not unlike the “plot” of Leon & Outside, tracking down the “real life” histories of these albums and their many versions & bootlegs is dizzying, but I was determined to get to the minotaur at the center, so I donned my Nathan Adler cap, put on my worst Tom Waits accent, and started digging.
In order for us to figure out Outside & The Leon Suites, we must first examine the circumstantial evidence. 1.Outside was released in 1995, and even for David Bowie, this album was… Different. Though 1.Outside was marketed as Bowie’s glorious return to rock, this album is not a return to anything. Quite the contrary – it is thoroughly experimental, even by Bowie standards, and is more like a chamber play with Bowie playing every character, than a regular album of any genre. What I would give to have been a fly on the wall when the executives at Virgin heard this for the first time. I mean, how the hell do you market something like that? Clearly Bowie had reached a point in his career where he knew he could do pretty much anything and get away with it.
It was definitely murder – but was it art?
That is the question at the end of the day – is it art or is it murder? According to Warhol, I suppose it all depends on if he can get away with it or not. The surface narrative of 1.Outside is based on a short story Bowie wrote with the concise title of: “The Diary of Nathan Adler or the Art-Ritual Murder of Baby Grace Blue, A Non-Linear Gothic Drama Hyper-Cycle”. So that’s all normal and fine. (The website I’ve linked there is also totally normal and fine).
I should mention that the whole Outside/Leon saga has always strongly reminded me of the Christopher Nolan film, Memento, as they both feature neo-noir experimental plotlines, cryptic clues, and way too many Poloroid photographs. The main character of Memento is even named Leonard Shelby! Bowie also did a version of his single, “Something’s In The Air” for the film’s soundtrack, so there is at least one overt connection between the two. I wouldn’t be surprised if Nolan and Bowie were collaborators on some level, since one of Bowie’s final film performances was playing the role of Nicola Tesla in The Prestige.
Outside’s experimental short story follows Art Crime Detective-Professor Nathan Adler as he tries to solve the murder of Baby Grace Blue, whose body parts were found scattered and displayed as a macabre art piece. He gets information on the case by plugging his findings into a “Metarandom Programme that restrings real life facts as improbably virtual-fact.” Essentially employing cut-up techniques to his own detective work. The story is written in the form of diary entries that jump back in forth through time and place – from the 90’s to the 70’s, and from Berlin to New York. Of course this is all presented in Bowie’s trademark convoluted, vague-as-fuck and difficult-to-nail-down narrative style. I don’t care how many liberal arts degrees you have, this story, much like Twin Peaks, is not designed to make sense on a surface level. It’s possible that Nathan Adler is unable to solve the mystery of who killed Baby Grace, because the real clues are all outside of the album, scattered throughout Leon, and others – possibly even albums that Bowie hadn’t gotten around to making yet. It really is all about the Metanarrative that is David Bowie. Much like the story to 1.Outside, Bowie’s history also shifts around and makes less sense the further you dig into it. Bowie’s work has always had a mercurial quality to it, but never before had he created something that was so obviously fishy. Outside is practically begging people to interact with it… I mean, just how weird does he have to behave in order to get people to notice this stuff??
Outside is a metafiction that breaks through the fourth wall and infects reality.
This is a recurring theme of the larger metanarrative that has been lurking in Bowie’s work from the very start, even going back to his first ever film appearance in a 1967 short horror film titled “The Image”. (Images is also the name of one of his earliest albums).
In this short, the subject of an artist’s painting comes alive, murdering him, and running off into the night. This motif returns again in the music video for “Look Back in Anger”:
In the video for “Look Back in Anger”, as the artist adds paint to the canvas, it simultaneously becomes “real”, similar to The Portrait of Dorian Gray. There are plenty other things going on in this video, but that one detail in particular is relevant to our discussion here. There is a recurring theme throughout Bowie’s work of the artist’s creation gaining sentience and breaking through the fourth wall. The artist usually comes to the horrifying revelation that they may not be “real” and tries to break outside of the “Matrix” or the prison that is their own reality. There are tons of other examples that I could include here, but this post is already going to be pretty long, and we will be coming back to it plenty in the future. Once you become aware of it, you can spot it everywhere in his work. However, it wasn’t until 1.Outside that he started getting REALLY obvious with it.
The Outside era was also when he started channeling his inner Basquiat, playing up the role of the tortured “arTISTE” , and added painting to his repertoire. Before 95, he would paint, but as a more private pass time, and would only occasionally mention it in interviews, always saying some version of the same line – that he “could have been a painter”. Not unlike a regular talking point associated with a certain dictator that we all know…
I Am With Name
Much like the artist-creator narrative thread, many characters in 1.Outside have been present in his work from the very start. It just seems like they are new, because he has applied the “cut up” technique to just about everything in his career, including his albums. Everything is out of order, hence my claim that his work was only intended to make sense after his death. A grave IS technically a small plot of land, after all.
I know I keep saying it, but Blackstar was the final puzzle piece – One that he threw down right before escaping through the ultimate “fourth wall” forever, and preventing us from pestering him with any questions about it. Classic Bowie.
Anyway, with 1.Outside, we finally get to learn the names of these characters that have been there all along. Bowie has mentioned playing at least seven characters in Outside, though just which characters those are can get as blurry as his line delivery once we start to pin them down.
Bowie has also dismissed these character/mystery plot elements as being mere “window-dressing” on the presentation of the music, but these days, I’m prone to call his bluff on just about anything he’s gone out of his way to downplay. The characters are not just present in the lyrics and voices, they are there within the music and leitmotifs themselves. At any rate, this shifting array of personas is another element that makes Outside so confusing, so here’s a quick surface breakdown of them so we’re all on something resembling the same page:
NOTE: I am not including the Segues under “Attributed Songs” for each character. The information is largely pulled from liner notes off the album itself.
Detective Professor Nathan Adler claims to be an investigator attached to Art Crime Inc., a division of the “Arts Protectorate of London”. Adler is presumably our guide and narrator through the Outside world, as he investigates the murder of Baby Grace; however, as his delusional rambling and crack-pot diary entries suggest, he should be considered unreliable at best and potentially homicidal at worst. Bowie also appears to have taken the name from an 18th Century Kabbalist. He also seems to be a large inspiration behind Fallout 4’s Synthetic Private Eye, Nick Valentine.
Attributed songs: “The Hearts Filthy Lesson”, “No Control”
Baby Grace Blue
A 14-year-old murder victim whose body was transformed into a grotesque, weblike display of limbs and organs outside of the Oxford Town Museum of Modern Parts, New Jersey.
Who killed Baby Grace becomes the anti-mystery that the anti-plot of Outside revolves around, with even our Detective Professor seeming less concerned with who did the murder vs if the murder was ART.
Whichever the case, no conclusions are ever drawn and the whole thread seems to be dropped by the end of the album
Baby Grace does appear to have left behind at least one clue on a cassette tape, judging from the title of her Outside segue, “Baby Grace: A Horrid Cassette”.
Considering the track is Bowie rambling in a pitched-up voice as a drugged-up little girl, “horrid” is the right word, as her voice sounds eerily similar to Bette Davis’ Baby Jane.
Ramona A. Stone
An underground cult leader and “interest-drug dealer” in her mid-40s. Described as an “update demon” who has amassed a horde of adoring acolytes after getting them hooked on her hard-wares, Ramona also appears to be Leon’s former lover and a suspect in the Art-Ritual Murder of Baby Grace. Her name is also similar to the Egyptian Amun-Ra. And the “A Stone” could potentially be a reference to a philosopher’s stone, but I don’t have much more than a hunch.
Attributed songs: “I Am With Name”
A 22-year-old biracial man, an “outsider” with a few petty convictions for petty theft, appropriation, and plagiarism without license… I wonder if bootlegging tapes was among his crimes…
Just how exactly Leon factors into the death of Baby Grace (or what’s made him a suspect) is kept obscured within the album’s text.
Attributed songs: “The Motel”, “I Have Not Been To Oxford Town”, “Through These Architect’s Eyes”, “Strangers When We Meet”
A kindly old man who runs a small antique shop on Rail Yard, Oxford Town, where he deals in art-drugs and DNA prints (among other contraband). The Diary of Nathan Adler describes him as a “fence for all apparitions of any medium. Harmless, lonely.” It appears he lent the room above his shop to Leon, at least for a time, and might have fenced drugs for Ramona, but he doesn’t seem to know anything more, at least nothing more that he will say…. Always got strong Mr. Charrington vibes from him as well.
Attributed songs: none.
Paddy (No portrait)
Although this name gets thrown around in “Hearts Filthy Lesson”, and is apparently one of Bowie’s characters, there’s not too much known about whoever Paddy is.
Attributed songs: an archive of Bowie’s website attributes “Hallo Spaceboy” to Paddy
There’s not too much information provided about the acolytes, apart from being fanatical members of Ramona’s underground cult – and that they appear to be wrapped up in fish Something really fishy indeed! Those eye wraps sure do look familiar, though.
Attributed Songs: “I Am With Name”, maybe “A Small Plot of Land”, “Strangers When We Meet” (potential backing chorus/ensemble vocals, but all speculation on my part)
Citizens of Oxford Town, New Jersey (No Portrait)
An ensemble/chorus part with little other information given. Perhaps Oxford Town is a metaphor for the Oxford English Dictionary?
Attributed Songs: “A Small Plot of Land”
Members of the Court of Justice (No Portrait)
Another ensemble chorus part with almost no other information available.
Attributed Songs: “We Prick You”
The Artist / Minotaur
It is difficult to find images of The Minotaur, because he is often lurking elsewhere on the physical media itself. On my CD, The Minotaur is behind and on the disk itself, but not in the booklet, suggesting that the Minotaur has escaped from the labyrinth that is Outside. Also, he [REDACTED]
Attributed songs: “The Voyeur of Utter Destruction (As Beauty)”, “Wishful Beginnings”, [REDACTED], and “I’m Deranged”
Chris Burden, Performance Artist
Big thanks to u/JustMyselfAndI for correcting me on this one: this character is Chris Burden, a performance artist briefly mentioned in the story. I had included him here as Tyler Burden until we could get some concrete evidence of his identity. I still like my name better
Leon Takes Us Outside
1.Outside’s unreleased companion album, The Leon Suites seems to be the other side of the same coin, with Outside focusing on Nathan Adler’s perspective, and The Leon Suites featuring more of Ramona. The two albums have moments where their paths cross, but apart from that, they are quite different. Outside includes more in the way of actual music, while Leon is primarily experimental soundscapes and Eno’s audio magic tricks. Each one features the same cast of characters, but it appears that the perspective has flipped.
With Ramona’s character running an underground cult, it does seem somewhat appropriate that her side of the album would be unreleased, underground, something you’d have to seek out on your own. Another odd feature of The Leon Suites is how little it actually features Leon. We’re at least given a bit of information about his actions (getting up on that stage, slashing zeroes in the sheets/fabric with his blade, his love affair with Ramona leading them down a dark spiral, his apparent falling-out with Ramona, and his lodging with Touchshriek), but it’s genuinely difficult to pin down where Leon’s voice as a character is within Outside/Leon. Despite all the rambling about him, he never gets his own segue to introduce himself, and all the songs that supposedly feature him sound as if they could have been sung by Adler.
I even tried combing through more of Bowie’s work to find any reference to whoever Leon might be, and found only one reference buried in the song “Tumble and Twirl” on Tonight – an album that will need its own post to properly dissect:
I’ve been to Leon’s
He’s got nine daughters
And a stereo
They say that Leon
Watches from the tree tops
When the road is mud
Everything stops with a thud
That’s the way it goes way down
Yonder in Borneo
Far beneath his mansion
There’s an open drain
Sending all the sewage down the hill
But when the general shows movies
No one hesitates
To sneak from the jungle
They laugh and they mumble
Enjoying the show
And that dusky mulatto
Ignoring the more (possibly intentional) problematic elements in the song, the fact that Leon is explicitly described as biracial seems to also have some relevance to Black Tie White Noise. But that’s yet another topic that we will have to cover at a later time.
Leon was only made available in its full form within the past few years. Per the official story from Camp Bowie, Leon was recorded in its own group of sessions in 1994 and was intended to be a one-off conceptual project for a supergroup that Eno and Bowie were trying to put together. The end product was a fully realized concept album that never got an official release. Even though parts of Leon were eventually used in 1.Outside, the bulk of that album would be recorded in its own sessions in 1995.
The first iteration of Leon was released in the 90’s and was titled “Something Really Fishy”. Far from being the polished full length version available today, this was around 54 minutes of cut-up material from “Leon”. For this reason I’ve sometimes seen it referred to as an incomplete assembly, but to my ears, it sounds an awful lot like selected snippets from one version of the already finished suites that’s designed to tease just how much more might be lurking out there.
Things changed in 2015 when the full 3-parts of The Leon Suites were leaked on Youtube. A year later things changed again when the FLAC files were made available in 2016 – something even Brian Eno tweeted about himself. Listening to these side-by-side on good speakers is interesting. While some of the difference in quality between the two can be explained by compression, it sounds to me as if the whole thing was re-engineered to a degree. The MP3 and FLAC versions are the two best known version of the Leon Suites, but they aren’t the only versions out there. The differences between the versions are subtle, but trained ears might be able to spot how they differ.
Below are some examples we’ve found lurking on various suspicious Youtube accounts:
You have the standard versions of the Leon Suites:
And then you have others:
To make tracking this thing even more confusing, some releases of Leon still call it “Outtakes from Outside”, or “Outtakes From The Outside Sessions” while also providing contradictory origins alongside it. Yes, I know this is all stupid semantics, but that’s exactly the point: The semantics of the language blur the lines, obfuscating the subject and confounding our ability to talk about it.
For example, you have: 1. Outside (The Nathan Adler Diaries: A Hyper Cycle), 1.Outside (Version 2), Leon (“Leon Takes us Outside” Suite), Leon Is Outside (1.Outside Outtakes), Leon the Outside Out-Takes, 2. Incide (Leon Reordered), and the list goes on. And on. This intentional blurring and distortion of language is also prevalent throughout the album itself.
One has to resist the urge to set the whole wretched thing down and run back into the warm familiar arms of Ziggy! Who was also weird, but in a more acceptable “paint your face with glitter” sort of way, not whatever the fuck this thing is… How am I even supposed to turn any of these new characters into sexy Halloween costumes?!
Okay, now this is just getting stupid…
As for what else might be lurking out there, after 1.Outside’s release, in press interviews, Bowie would occasionally threaten to release at least 5 more Outside albums, which is apparently why the album is titled “1.Outside” and not just “Outside”. (Even though I will still occasionally refer to it as such, because typing out the full name is obnoxious, and I think he knows it).
The proposed follow-up to 1.Outside was going to be titled 2.Contamination.
Slinky Secrets, Hotter Than The Sun
With all the weirdness around this album in particular it all seems a little intentional, but on the other hand, would Bowie really go and bootleg his own music? And if he did have a completely mastered full-length album of such good quality on hand, why hasn’t it gotten an official release? I mean, how many official box sets have been released in the past few years? Plenty of fans would pay good money for extra music! And if Bowie was seeding out unofficial versions of his own albums, how much “new” Bowie is out there?
In our quest to find other albums related to Outside, we came across another unofficial album titled “Slinky Secrets” comprised of Live Rehearsals at Elstree Studios
Note: Elstree Studios is also the same place were Labyrinth was filmed. Also Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey. And Big Brother.
Slinky Secrets is an unofficial double-LP made in 2015 that features “live” rehearsal material for the Outside Tour recorded between November 8-12, 1995 at Elstree Studios in Hertfordshire, UK. I first became aware of the recordings after Brian Eno linked a download of them around the same time as The Leon Suites.
For those of you who have a life: normally around an album, you’d get bootlegs of live shows, demos, promos, singles, etc, but full albums of unique material with such professional mixing… Not so much.
Unlike the album shared by Eno via tweet, which appear to be long rehearsal takes full of pauses, warm-ups, and false starts, the Secrets LP has been trimmed and tailored for the format, maintaining the unique feel of a rough live rehearsal while also flowing like a proper album experience, with superb audio production. It’s fascinating to hear the material from Outside cut up and reordered for live performance, and great fun to hear some of his back catalogue performed in the style of Outside. Older numbers like “Andy Warhol”, “Breaking Glass”, and “My Death”, suggest how other songs from Bowie’s canon might factor in to the framework of Outside, musically, lyrically, or otherwise.
Like The Trident Tapes, which emerged around the same time period, no licensing or rights information is provided on the album itself, so its origins remain just as fishy as the rest of it…
If you’ve made it this far, congratulations. Here is the vinyl rip of Slinky Secrets for your trouble. On our rip, we have included some of the lead-out space between the tracks to preserve the vinyl pacing. Unlike the photo above, our version is a blue vinyl. I don’t know if there are any discrepancies between these pressings, but I thought I’d mention it just in case.
As always, here is another download source for the album, since Dropbox can get iffy when multiple people try to download it at once. (YouTube videos for the Slinky and Trident records are still on the docket, and their posts will be updated soon).
One quirk that I noticed on this vinyl in particular is the presence of this electrical static between the tracks. It doesn’t seem to impact the songs at all, so it’s hard to tell if it is in the mix or something else. At the end of one record side, it even sounds like a fuzzy radio signal blip, which is not the typical static noise that you normally get off of vinyl. We did thoroughly clean the record multiple times, and each time it came through. If any audio enthusiasts out there can identify what causes this particular sound and how to get rid of it, I’d be open to hearing solutions and doing a new recording. (Note: This particular static has not appeared on our other records, so it is not our player, and it seems to be unique to these specific 2 LP’s).
Another good blog with more on Outside’s symbolism can be found Here
How many Slinky Secrets can you hear on this album?
Until next time,
Don’t Believe His Lies