Dead Man Walking singleWritten by: David Bowie, Reeves Gabrels
Recorded: March-November 1996
Producers: David Bowie, Reeves Gabrels, Mark Plati

Released: 3 February 1997

Available on:
Look At The Moon! (Live Phoenix Festival 97)


David Bowie: vocals
Reeves Gabrels: guitars, Roland VG-8, programming, samples
Mike Garson: piano
Gail Ann Dorsey: bass guitar, vocals
Mark Plati: synthesizer, keyboards, programming, samples
Zachary Alford: drums

‘Dead Man Walking’ was the third single released from David Bowie’s 21st studio album Earthling.

The song began as a tribute to actor Susan Sarandon, alongside whom Bowie had starred in 1983’s The Hunger. She won an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role in the 1995 crime drama Dead Man Walking, based on the 1993 book by Sister Helen Prejean.

My initial idea was to write a paean to Susan Sarandon, but then I went over to do Neil Young’s benefit for the Bridge School, and watching Neil and Crazy Horse working on stage was really special. There’s something sage-like about Young, this grand old man of American rock, a pioneer loaded with integrity, and disarmingly charming as a man; and watching him work with these, let’s call them older men, there was a sense of grace and dignity about what they were doing, and also an incredible verve and energy. It was very moving.
David Bowie
The Complete David Bowie, Nicholas Pegg

In the studio

‘Dead Man Walking’ was, like much of the Earthling album, recorded at Looking Glass Studios in New York City.

The first attempt to write a song in the studio without a pre-existing idea. David wanted it to be techno influenced, in particular by the band Underworld. We came up with a basic rhythm program, and immediately David turned to the guitar and the ‘Supermen’ chords came out, as well as the story about Jimmy Page. Another ‘Bowie’ song was coming, I could tell. Our routine as usual – Reeves searched for some guitar sounds for the verse, I came up with the Moog synth part at the beginning, and David wrote a lyric, my favorite of the record. This was the track where I lost his guide vocal while backing up the drive (we decided then and there to upgrade), and after telling him, he sang it over the next time we addressed the track. David actually sang this again during the mix, the only track he sang over. When the band came in, instead of focusing the track like the other songs, they made it even more blurry. Too many elements on tape! It was a bit hard to listen to for a while. As Reeves had done for ‘Seven Years’, I really took it upon myself to work this track to some conclusion. It took five days to sort it out during the mix, but it became a real epic. It begins completely programmed, and by the time it’s finished, it’s completely live.
Mark Plati
Interview for Strange Fascination, David Buckley

Bowie’s early band the Manish Boys had recorded ‘I Pity The Fool’ and ‘Take My Tip’ on 15 January 1965 at IBC Studios on Portland Place, London. On lead guitar was 21-year-old session musician Jimmy Page, later of Led Zeppelin.

During the session Page taught Bowie a riff which was later incorporated into ‘The Supermen’ on 1970’s The Man Who Sold The World.

When I was a baby, I did a rock session with one of the bands, one of the millions of bands that I had in the ’60s – it was the Manish Boys, that’s what it was – and the session guitar player doing the solo was this young kid who’d just come out of art school and was already a top session man, Jimmy Page. And he just got a fuzz box and he used that for the solo. He was wildly excited about it and he was quite generous that day and he said, ‘Look, I’ve got this riff but I’m not using it for anything, so why don’t you learn it and see if you can do anything with it?’ So I had his riff, and I’ve used it ever since! [laughs]. It’s never let me down.
David Bowie
ChangesNowBowie, BBC Radio 1, 8 January 1997

In addition to using Page’s riff on ‘The Supermen’, Bowie reused it in 1996 for ‘Dead Man Walking’.

It’s a reflection on getting older. I recently worked with Neil Young at a benefit: he played acoustically with two members of Crazy Horse and they would slowly dance in a tight tribal circle. It was so moving, so poignant, they seemed to evoke and bring to life all that their youthful dreams and energies rested on: Rock and Roll lives on. The song owes a considerable amount to that performance. The guitar riff is the very first one anyone taught me: Jimmy Page came to a recording session I did with one of those groups I had in the mid-60s. He was [producer] Shel Talmy’s session guitar player. He said, ‘try this’: it was really effective. ‘I can’t use it: you can have it.’ It became ‘Supermen’, and was revived on this one.
David Bowie
Earthling press release

We had electric guitars with speakers built into them – it had this phasing-type sound. We liked the way it sounded, so we sampled it [on ‘Dead Man Walking’]. That was a starting point.
Reeves Gabrels
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

Mike Garson, best known for his freestyle solo on ‘Aladdin Sane’, played bebop jazz piano towards the end of the song.

This is the only Bowie album that I ever played any bebop jazz on, which occurs on the fade-out of ‘Dead Man Walking’. I’m playing these crazy right-hand piano lines, which I could never fit in to David music. Anything that I had studied, he found a place for it, whether it was classical, jazz, avant-garde, pop, gospel. He’d go to that part of my brain and ask for it.
Mike Garson
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

The lyrics of the second verse were a late addition, written by Bowie to order when co-producer Mark Plati realised they were missing from the master tape.

When we were mixing, there was no second verse to it. It hadn’t happened yet; we were just working on other things. Then we’re going to mix it and I’m like, ‘Hey man, there’s no second verse to this song. I just put the first verse in there as a placeholder.’ And he’s like, ‘Oh, right,’ and he goes back to the couch. He starts scribbling something, and 10 minutes later it’s like, ‘OK.’ He goes in and my jaw hits the floor – that came out in 10 minutes. That would happen a lot and you’re like, ‘Where does this come from?’ It’s part of being a writer, a well-read person and a curious person – after a while it was not so shocking.
Mark Plati
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

Bowie wrote and recorded the second verse for ‘Dead Man Walking’ on the final day of mixing the album at Right Track Studios, shortly before the mastering stage.

I had to lock him in an attached lounge and remove the phones and his laptop. He protested, but with no distractions it took David about 30 minutes or less to write the overdue verse.

The image that starts the second verse (“Three old men dancing under the lamplight/Shaking their sex and their bones”) came from a performance by Neil Young and Crazy Horse that David, Gail and I saw in October 1996. As a trio, we took a short break from work on Earthling and went to California to play two shows at Peggy and Neil Young’s Bridge School Benefit. We were struck by the energy of Neil and his band who while they were playing, danced, stomped and weaved in a circle that conjured visions of powerful, centuries-old Native American rituals.

Another lyric phrase from ‘Dead Man Walking’ illustrates David’s magpie nature. He appropriated good bits from all kinds of sources. I bought a pair of Fluevog boots one day on the way to Looking Glass. As I was lacing them up at the opposite end of the studio couch from David, a card hyping my purchase fluttered from the box. I dropped it on the low table in front of us. It read, ‘Like Dancing On Angels’.

Reeves Gabrels, May 2021
Brilliant Adventure (1992-2001) book

Also scattered throughout the song were sampled vocals by bass guitarist Gail Ann Dorsey.

Gail had been doing some vocal part, and as I was prone to do generally, I would record everything. A lot of times I would take what people had done or said and throw it in odd places just to see what would happen. I was used to this whole ‘happy accidents’ thing that would always happen, and especially having a musical head I knew how to make things work. Gail did some ad libs and I would sprinkle them wherever, and they’re in ‘Dead Man Walking’.
Mark Plati
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)

In 1998 ‘Dead Man Walking’ was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Male Rock Vocal Performance, but lost out to ‘Cold Irons Bound’ by Bob Dylan.

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