Bowie? Sylvian? Jobriath? Mackenzie? A Mystery Solved
Early in 2005, in the midst of late-night web-crawling, I came across a song that was a mystery. It couldn’t have been produced by the artist listed in the file name. And, in fact, the various versions I discovered in trying to find out who really recorded it were attributed to an improbable set of performers/collaborators, among them David Bowie, David Sylvian, Scott Walker, Jobriath and even Nick Cave. In desperation, I took a stab at transcribing the lyrics and sent an e-mail with them (mp3 attached) to all of the folks I know with eclectic and obscure musical knowledge, hoping one of them might be able to tell me who/what it was. I got a lot of responses that basically read, “Cool song. No idea who that is.” I joined an e-mail list recommended to me by my friend J., who figured someone in that group might have the answer. I again got mostly puzzled replies. One person suggested the late Billy Mackenzie of the Associates might be the artist. But I found no Associates recording, or solo Mackenzie work, to confirm the hypothesis. So I gave up, naming the song “?” on the album “?” by “?” in iTunes.
If you haven’t done so already, stop reading for a moment, scroll down, and listen to the song. Isn’t that just one of the most perfect pop songs you’ve ever heard? (Yes, I know we might have different ideas about what constitutes a pop song.) Among the things I love about it is the way the arrangement develops. The singer’s baritone voice is beautifully recorded and panned dead center. It and the drums are a constant for most of the song, but the development is in the kaleidoscopic small touches, the elements that enter, exit, morph and recombine throughout: the backwards sounds at the beginning, the guitar flourishes, the percussive elements scattered throughout the stereo spectrum, the female background vocals, the various synth parts, the trombone slides, the saxophone obbligati and the mostly subtle delay on the vocal line. Taken as a whole, the track recalls work by all of the artists to whom it’s been attributed. It sounds both like a throwback (to the 1980s version of glam, to post-punk, gothic pop if such a thing exists) and something that’s thoroughly 21st century.
Truth to tell, I didn’t really give up on finding the source of the track—otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this post. Roughly every few months or so, I’d become newly obsessed with the song and would Google the more obscure lyrical bits in hopes that a lyric page or a fan page might provide a clue. Nothing would ever come up, and I’d resign myself to the fact that I just might never know … at least until the next obsessive moment.
Late in the evening on Sunday, after I returned from a weekend in Boulder, the obsession was again upon me. But this time, something different happened. I put the words “from glitter to sorrow” into the search engine and got exactly one result. Apparently, there was at least one other person in the world who had the same quandary as I did. His way of addressing it was to print his own transcription of the lyrics and a link to an mp3 on his page in hopes that some reader would be able to provide him the answer. His post went up on 7 December of last year. In July, just a few weeks ago, someone provided the answer.
The mystery song is “Jobriath” by Balcony, and it was released in 2001 on an album entitled Before Needs. It turns out that the group is really one person: a Birmingham-born British expatriate living in Los Angeles named Stephen Lester. You can hear more samples of his work on his MySpace page. While you’re there (as well as on his label’s artist page), be sure to check out the pictures. Wow! Glam and goth, indeed.
Needless to say, I was glad to finally have that mystery solved. I was in a celebratory mood that was enhanced by my getting a phone call from a friend, who mere minutes later was hearing the story you’ve just read in our favorite neighborhood watering hole. If you like the stuff you’ve heard, I suggest you get yourself a copy of the CD. Or come to my next listening party…