David Bowie - I’m Not Quite
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
It was sometime in the winter of my senior year of college. My girlfriend and I had gotten into a huge fight, a stupid, tempestuous argument that seemed to threatened our entire nine-month relationship. I was sitting on the floor of her cramped dorm room, frustrated and restless, while she lay on the bed, unresponsive. The lights were out. It was snowing outside, over the vast darkness of western Michigan. All I wanted was for her to say something. Maybe I could read to her from The Little Prince, as I’d done on other cold nights, when we curled up together and drank tea; I didn’t care. When she finally moved, she didn’t speak. She leaned over to her tape deck, pressed play, and sank back into her bed. Amidst the clutter of recording equipment, a small voice said, “This one is called ‘I’m Not Quite’…”
I’d heard the song before. The cassette was a bootleg of David Bowie demos recorded in his bedroom in early 1969; she’d copied it from a girl with whom she’d had a brief, intense friendship in Australia several years earlier and whose flowery handwriting was all over the sleeve. No one seemed to know much about the recording, though; it wasn’t until recently that I learned that it usually goes by the title The Beckenham Oddity. What I did know was that it sounded completely unlike the rambunctious, swaggering Bowie I knew from classics like “Jean Genie” or “Suffragette City.” These were all reflective, starkly intimate songs, with Bowie lightly strumming an acoustic guitar and cooing close to the mic in an unexpectedly meek, almost childlike voice. On “When I’m Five,” the future Ziggy Stardust even imagines himself as an angelic four-year-old who can’t wait to grow up; the result is predictably maudlin.
When she’d played the tape for me on other occasions, “I’m Not Quite” had always stood out among some of the more muddled tunes, from the breathy, jazz-inspired “da-da-da”s of its intro to the tumbling melancholy guitar patterns toward the end. Listening to it that night, though, I focused on the words more than I ever had before. If you haven’t heard it, the song is in the form of a letter to an ex-girlfriend whom Bowie writes in order to gauge the extent of her current feelings for him. It’s a genuinely heartbreaking set of lyrics, in part because he lays his own emotions so bare (”I care for no one else but you / I tear my soul to cease the pain”) but also because he’s clearly self-deluded. Every indication seems to be that the ex is perfectly happy without him—he’s heard reports—and yet he constantly speculates and projects his own misery onto her. “You cry a little in the dark,” he says at one point. “Well, so do I.” (The coincidence would be more impressive if his conjecture had any basis beyond a nagging feeling.) The apotheosis comes at the end of the third verse, when he imagines what her new boyfriend must be like and then asks, nakedly, “But did you ever call my name just by mistake?” This second-person voice lends Bowie’s lament a haunting immediacy; by his final breath, I was both desperately hoping I wouldn’t soon find myself in his shoes, and also romantically clinging to all the melodramatic sentiment. Having led a fairly carefree adolescence, this was one of the first times I can remember being so emotionally bowled over by a piece of music.
Not long thereafter (eventually things settled down, as they do), I picked up a copy of Space Oddity at a thrift store and discovered that “I’m Not Quite,” unbeknownst to me, had had a second life as the album track “Letter to Hermione.” (Hermione Farthingale, a ballet dancer and sometime singer, had broken up with David Bowie shortly before he wrote the song; a Bowie fan site wonders if the earlier version of the song omits the subject’s name from the title because the split was too recent.) Recorded only six months after the demo (in August 1969), “Letter to Hermione” has never appealed to me quite as much. Though the song lengths are nearly identical, the new, fleshed-out version feels more brisk, which means that certain lines aren’t given their proper weight. Bowie’s voice is also raspier, robbing the song of some of its innocence (the original is on the order of Chet Baker’s version of “I Get Along Without You Very Well” in terms of innocent delusion), and he takes some liberties with the melody, which makes the whole thing seem more playful and showy, with significantly less of the demo’s quiet hermetic feel. Still, there exists in both versions an eerie sense of longing that, over five years later, continues to stop me cold.
By: John M. Cunningham
Published on: 2007-07-30