Released: 10 June 2002
David Bowie: vocals, guitar
Carlos Alomar, Earl Slick, Gerry Leonard: guitar
Tony Visconti: bass guitar
Matt Chamberlain: drums
Gail Ann Dorsey, Catherine Russell: vocals
The song was recorded at Looking Glass Studios, Philip Glass’s recording studio on Manhattan, New York City. Bowie wrote the song in the studio on co-producer Mark Plati’s mini stratocaster guitar.
‘Afraid’ was a track written on my mini-guitar. David was in the process of writing it, but he was a little behind (studio time ticking away..) so we had to take a page out of the old-school book (courtesy of Andrew Loog Oldham, ex-Rolling Stones manager) and lock him in a room to finish it! (and aren’t we glad we did).
Bowie and Plati performed a live version of ‘Afraid’ on 2 November 2000 during a BowieNet webcast. It was the first time the song was performed in public.
‘Afraid’ was one of two songs recorded for Toy which were released on Heathen. Unlike ‘Slip Away’, however, ‘Afraid’ was not re-recorded. Instead it received overdubs under the auspices of Tony Visconti, who also played bass and mixed the track.
Both ‘Slip Away’ and ‘Afraid’ were recorded early last year and as I liked these two so much, I just moved ’em forward to this album…
I had always liked the version of ‘Afraid’ that I did with Mark Plati, so Tony and I got him to do a little more work on his guitar parts so that it would be more in line with the rest of the album, Tony again playing bass. Then Tony mixed it. I think it could be a great live song. Of course, it’s kind of sardonic in its assertion that if we play the game everything will be alright.
‘Afraid’ contained the line “I believe in Beatles” – a paraphrase of John Lennon’s famous statement “I don’t believe in Beatles/I just believe in me”, from his 1970 song ‘God’. Bowie was a fan of the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album, and in the 1990s recorded two songs from it: ‘Mother‘, and ‘Working Class Hero’, the latter with Tin Machine. He also paraphrased Lennon’s ‘I Found Out’ on ‘Watch That Man’ (“The girl on the phone wouldn’t leave me alone/A throw back from someone’s LP”), and in 1979 played ‘Remember’ during the BBC radio show Star Special.
‘Afraid’ deals with insecurity and self-doubt, its protagonist asking “What made my life so wonderful? What made me feel so bad?” He reels off a litany of answers: “If I put faith in medication, if I can smile a crooked smile, if I can talk on television, if I can walk an empty mile, then I won’t feel afraid…”
In contemporary interviews, Bowie stressed that ‘Afraid’ was not autobiographical. “I guess it’s supposed to be an ironic song,” he said. “It’s, ‘Well, if I do everything I’m told to do, and I do it the way everybody expects things to be done, then I won’t be afraid of anything.’ He doesn’t really want to do things like that.”
An extract from early mix of ‘Afraid’ appeared in a television advertisement for XM Radio in November 2001, starring Bowie, some seven months ahead of its release on Heathen.
The Toy version, without the overdubs which were later added by Bowie and Tony Visconti, leaked online in March 2011, along with the rest of the album. They were reportedly early mixes taken from a laptop stolen from Mark Plati.
David Bowie performed ‘Afraid’ live 67 times, mostly during the Heathen Tour and A Reality Tour.
The first performance was on 10 May 2002, during an MTV event at the 2002 Tribeca Film Festival. At the concert, which took place at New York’s Battery Park, Bowie performed just five songs: ‘China Girl’, ‘Slow Burn’, ‘Afraid’, ‘Let’s Dance’, and ‘I’m Afraid Of Americans’.
The first full concert performance of ‘Afraid’ was on 11 June, during a pre-tour warm-up show at New York’s Roseland Ballroom. There, and at London’s Meltdown Festival on 29 June, he performed Low and Heathen in full. The Meltdown appearance was the first date of the Heathen Tour, which ran until 23 October 2002.
Bowie performed ‘Afraid’ during a warm-up show ahead of A Reality Tour, at The Chance in Poughkeepsie, New York, on 19 August 2003.
A Reality Tour began in Copenhagen, Denmark, on 7 October, and ended in Scheeßel, Germany, on 25 June 2004. Bowie’s final performance of ‘Afraid’ was at the Norwegian Wood Festival in Oslo, Norway, on 18 June 2004.
A performance of ‘Afraid’ from Dublin in November 2003 can be heard on A Reality Tour, and seen on the DVD of the same name.