One of my favourite videos of David Bowie (I have a few) is a clip from the 1997 documentary Inspirations, directed by Michael Apted. Filmed during the production of Bowie’s 1995 album Outside, Bowie is sitting at a black Apple PowerBook, in front of a sentence randomizer app he designed for writing the album's lyrics.
Bowie gestures to the screen: “It’s a program that I’ve developed with a friend of mine from San Francisco, and it’s called the Verbasizer.”
Demonstrating the program, he continues. “It’ll take the sentence, and I’ll divide it up between the columns, and then when I’ve got say, three or four or five—sometimes I’ll go as much as 20, 25 different sentences going across here, and then I’ll set it to randomize. And it’ll take those 20 sentences and cut in between them all the time, picking out, choosing different words from different columns, and from different rows of sentences.”
“So what you end up with is a real kaleidoscope of meanings and topic and nouns and verbs all sort of slamming into each other.”
You're sleepy now
Your silhouette is so stationary
You're released but your custody calls
And I want to be free
Don't you want to be free
Do you like girls or boys
It's confusing these days
But Moondust will cover you
An excerpt of the lyrics from the song Hallo Spaceboy, off Bowie's 1995 album Outside, which is said to have been mostly written with and inspired by the output of a piece of custom-made text randomization software.
The Verbasizer was a digital version of an approach to lyrical writing that Bowie had been using for decades, called the cut-up technique. Popularized by writers William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, the technique relied on source literary material—a newspaper article or diary entry, perhaps—that had been cut up into words or phrases, and re-ordered into new, random, potentially significant meanings.
In typical Bowie fashion, he had reinvented the technique, albeit with a digital twist.
Bowie worked on the Verbasizer with Ty Roberts, who went on to become the co-founder and chief technology officer of Gracenote, a service that maintains a database of audio CD metadata. According to an interview with Hypebot in 2013, Roberts had been working on interactive CD-ROMs for both Outside producer Brian Eno and Bowie at the time, and was invited to visit the studio during the pair’s recording of Outside.
“Roberts described Bowie as taking multiple word sources, from the newspaper to hand-written words, cutting them up, throwing them into a hat and then arranging the fragments on pieces of paper. He'd then cross out material that didn't fit to create lines of lyrics,” Hypebot senior contributor Clyde Smith recounted.
“Roberts suggested he could create software for Bowie to speed up the process and did so for use on a Mac laptop.”
The Verbasizer, though faster, was merely the latest incarnation of Bowie’s cut-up process. Bowie described the technique in a 1974 BBC documentary, Cracked Actor, as “igniting anything that might be in my imagination,” and would use it often in the decade’s remaining years.
“Randomness and juxtaposition were to be the guiding principles in his work in the second half of the 1970s,” wrote according to author David Buckley in Strange Fascination: David Bowie: The Definitive Story. “The sense of randomness appealed greatly to Bowie. He would write a song both in the first and third person and then randomize these two perspectives to create a ‘new’ subjectivity.”
From 1976 to 1979, David Bowie worked with producer Brian Eno on the Berlin Trilogy, and 1995’s Outside was the first time Bowie and Eno had worked together since. It was only fitting he was using the technique once again. Outside would be Bowie’s 19th studio album.
Bowie’s 25th and final studio album, Blackstar, was released last Friday, January 8—the date of his 69th birthday, and just days before his death.