SWERVE YOUR ENTHUSIASM (18)
August 30, 2021
One in a series of 25 enthusiastic posts, contributed by 25 HILOBROW friends and regulars, on the topic of our favorite unfinished masterworks, legendary obscurities and cherished almost-weres.
THE LEON SUITES
David Bowie had a rich shadow canon — scrapped soundtracks and screenplays, an unfinished autobiography, musicals abandoned for later scavenging. Always maintaining a plan A, B and C, he dwelt in particle probability, each of his realized projects being the opportunity seized by whatever self survived the collapse. The most elusive of the ones that didn’t make it may in fact be the one he completed: LEON, if that is its name.
And this might be because it was Bowie’s one attempt to breach the realities intentionally rather than dodge amongst them intuitively. In 1994 his slate was clear again, in a space between labels and personas, and with Brian Eno he set off in search of a towering might-have-been: their mutual inspiration Scott Walker, the pop idol turned pioneering recluse who had not recorded in a decade. Consciously constructing the album Walker “would have made,” they and an ensemble of musical collaborators (Reeves Gabrels, Mike Garson, Sterling Campbell, Erdal Kızılçay) put together three sprawling but self-contained suites of churning improvisation, obsessive incantation and minimal earworms with sharp teeth.
Compositional notions meander until a thematic vein is struck and worked at like a cadenced compulsion; narrative leaps along from the sinking continents of serial fragments. Bowie was widely seen at the time as having to reconstruct his own credibility, but LEON’s suites were the sound of him trashing the rest of his image and oeuvre and assembling a new city from the wreckage, its embryonic songs scraping and banging their way out of the egg.
The experiment finished, he then grew finished with it. Walker himself released a new album (the epochal Tilt, whose own blast waves would resonate for the decade ’til he did it again); no label wanted to try and sell such music from Bowie; and somewhere he remembered that he didn’t really want to be this much less than a star. So he cut a bunch of more catchy and structured art-pop songs, salvaged sounds and some narrative threads from what had just been done, and LEON became the shed skin of 1. Outside (1995), though it’s the latter that feels much more like the rough draft (or scrapbook).
LEON is a relatively un-lost work online (some leaked permutations being more intact than others), but no official release looks likely, even now; though preserved, it seems that LEON will never be claimed. And I do wonder if it was ever meant to be heard at all. This was an exercise, or maybe an exorcise; Bowie spending some time in the shoes of an artist he might have suspected he was in fact the shadow-self of, and standing firmly and in full light through the whole journey. The test footage, the qualifying round, the phantom town set up to weather the nuclear blast. Having blown through, it was once again safe for him to go outside.
SWERVE YOUR ENTHUSIASM: SERIES INTRODUCTION by Adam McGovern | Luc Sante on WARHOL’S WALT WHITMAN | Peggy Nelson on THE CURSE OF QUIXOTE | Adrienne Crew on POOR DEVIL | Bishakh Som on KATE BUSH BOOTLEGS | Douglas Wolk on BIG NUMBERS #3 | Devin McKinney on THE ORIGINAL OF LAURA | Mandy Keifetz on BACKFIRE | Heather Quinlan on TRANSITIONAL DISNEY | Michael Grasso on STEELY DAN’S 2nd ARRANGEMENT | Kelly Jean Fitzsimmons on THE GREAT MOVIE RIDE | Josh Glenn on LE HIBOU PHILOSOPHE | Lynn Peril on 70, GIRLS, 70 | Ron Wimberly on SHIRATO SANPEI | Holly Interlandi on LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT |Stan Chou on TYRAEL’S MIGHT | Nikhil Singh on JOURNEY TO IXTLAN | Brian Lozano on BLOWN BANNER | Adam McGovern on THE LEON SUITES | Sajan Saini on BRISCO COUNTY | Heather Kapplow on LORD OF LIGHT | Greg Rowland on SOLARNAUTS | Christopher-Rashee Stevenson on FLEDGLING | Crystal Durant on TURN-ON | Ran Xia on BYRON’S FRAGMENT | Carolyn Raship on BURNT BRONTË.
NERD YOUR ENTHUSIASM (4Q2021): TIME | THE POST OFFICE | ARDUIN | PAGE EDGES | SUMMATIONS | & 20 other nerdy passions. SWERVE YOUR ENTHUSIASM (3Q2021): WARHOL’S WALT WHITMAN | 70, GIRLS, 70 | TYRAEL’S MIGHT | SHIRATO SANPEI | THE LEON SUITES | & 20 other never-realized cultural productions. FIVE-O YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2Q2021): DARK SHADOWS | MANNIX | GET SMART | THE ADDAMS FAMILY | I DREAM OF JEANNIE | & 20 other Sixties (1964–1973) TV shows. FERB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (1Q2021): STEVEN UNIVERSE | TOP CAT | REN & STIMPY | SHE-RA AND THE PRINCESSES OF POWER | DRAGON BALL Z | & 20 other animated series. CARBONA YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2020): “Sex Bomb” | “Going Underground” | “Soft South Africans” | “Typical Girls” | “Human Fly” | & 20 other Seventies (1974–1983) punk singles. KLAATU YOU (2020 weekly): ZARDOZ | METROPOLIS | DARK STAR | SINS OF THE FLESHAPOIDS | SOLARIS | & dozens of other pre-STAR WARS sci-fi movies. CONVOY YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2019): THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE | ROLLERBALL | BLACK SUNDAY | SORCERER | STRAIGHT TIME | & 20 other Seventies (1974–1983) action movies. SERIOCOMIC (2019 weekly): LITTLE LULU | VIZ | MARSUPILAMI | ERNIE POOK’S COMEEK | HELLBOY | & dozens of other comics. TUBE YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2018): LOONEY TUNES | THREE STOOGES | THE AVENGERS | ROCKY & BULLWINKLE | THE TWILIGHT ZONE | & 20 other Fifties (1954–1963) TV shows. WOWEE ZOWEE (2018 weekly): UNISEX | UNDER THE PINK | DUMMY | AMOR PROHIBIDO | HIPS AND MAKERS | & dozens of other Nineties (1994–2003) albums. KLUTE YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2017): THE KILLERS | BANDE À PART (BAND OF OUTSIDERS) | ALPHAVILLE | HARPER | BLOW-UP | & 20 other Sixties (1964–1973) neo-noir movies. #SQUADGOALS (2017 weekly): THE WILD BUNCH | BOWIE’S BAND | THE BLOOMSBURY GROUP | THE HONG KONG CAVALIERS | VI ÄR BÄST! & dozens of other squads. GROK MY ENTHUSIASM (2016 weekly): THE THEORY AND PRACTICE OF LUNCH | WEEKEND | MILLION YEAR PICNIC | LA BARONNE EMILE D’ERLANGER | THE SURVIVAL SAMPLER | & dozens more one-off enthusiasms. QUIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2016): “Tainted Love” | “Metal” | “Frankie Teardrop” | “Savoir Faire” | “Broken English” | & 20 other Seventies (1974–1983) new wave singles. CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2015): DARKER THAN YOU THINK | THE SWORD IN THE STONE | OUT OF THE SILENT PLANET | THIEVES’ HOUSE | QUEEN OF THE BLACK COAST | & 20 other Thirties (1934–1943) fantasy novels. KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2014): ALDINE ITALIC | DATA 70 | TORONTO SUBWAY | JOHNSTON’S “HAMLET” | TODD KLONE | & 20 other typefaces. HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2013): “Spoonin’ Rap” | “Rapper’s Delight” | “Rappin’ Blow” | “The Incredible Fulk” | “The Adventures of Super Rhyme” | & 20 other Seventies (1974–1983) hip-hop songs. KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2012): Justice or vengeance? | Kirk teaches his drill thrall to kiss | “KHAAAAAN!” | “No kill I” | Kirk browbeats NOMAD | & 20 other Captain Kirk scenes. KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM (2011): THE ETERNALS | BLACK MAGIC | DEMON | OMAC | CAPTAIN AMERICA | & 20 other Jack Kirby panels.