Stacks: David Bowie & Stevie Ray Vaughan – “Cracked Actor”

Stacks is back, with a fresh look for 2014 and me still posting on Mondays. Today I took a peak at one of the “what if…” moments of the early 80s. It’s been nearly 7 years since I first wrote about the record, and by focusing on “Cracked Actor” I got a slightly different view of the road not taken.

David Bowie & Stevie Ray Vaughan
“Cracked Actor”
Dallas Moonlight bootleg, 1983

In late 1982, Stevie Ray Vaughan recorded several guitar solos and miscellaneous pieces for David Bowie’s Let’s Dance album, most memorably channeling Albert King for the solo on the title track. After hearing his idea of European dance pop and southern American blues come blistering to life in Vaughan’s hands, Bowie asked Vaughan to join the band for the resulting Serious Moonlight tour. It was not to be; after band rehearsals had worked everything into shape, the stories say that Vaughan’s management tried to shake down Bowie for more money as they were literally getting on the plane to Europe. Bowie declined to renegotiate, stopped on the way to pick up Earl Slick, and toured without Stevie Ray. So this rehearsal tape from April 27th is a document of a path not taken, of what might have been.

In its original incarnation on 1973’s Aladdin Sane, Bowie aimed for a Slade stomper, a clap-and-sing-along ode to the callous debauchery of an aging film star. Here, the arrangement has sacrificed stomp for swing, with the glam making way for a more appropriate sense of glamour. The lecher is still on the make, but instead of merely acting like an aging star, Bowie now has a bit more insight into the trials and tribulations of popularity. There is an understanding at age 35 he couldn’t have properly imagined a decade earlier. As a result, the band sell it like the cold truth.

However, the fact that it’s 1983 and not 1968 can’t be ignored. Like Let’s Dance itself, the conception holds the arrangement in time despite an excellent Stevie Ray Vaughan solo and some great horn stabs. This is Europop of the era, its sparkling sheen and chrome-plated everything a distracting glint to the ears. Being a boot, the lack of low-end certainly doesn’t help. But Vaughan brings to it a bit of earthy realism, something that Earl Slick couldn’t do when it was played on tour. Slick is an excellent guitar player, but unlike Vaughan the electric blues of the 60s was not where he lived and breathed. The contrast between their solos highlights what a missed opportunity this was for Bowie and Vaughan and all of us.

—Erik

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