Released: 13 April 1973
David Bowie: vocals, acoustic guitar
Mick Ronson: acoustic guitar, electric guitar
Trevor Bolder: bass guitar
Mick ‘Woody’ Woodmansey: drums
Mike Garson: piano
David Sanborn: saxophone
A love song to an unnamed temptress, ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ is the sumptuous closing track on David Bowie’s sixth album Aladdin Sane, and a perfect portrait of decadence, lust and beauty.
Mike Garson’s piano opens with the most ridiculous and spot-on re-creation of a 19th Century music hall ‘exotic’ number. I can see now the ‘poses plastiques’ as if through a smoke-filled bar. Fans, castanets and lots of Spanish black lace and little else. Sexy, mmm? And for you, Madam?
This was written for a wonderful young girl whom I’ve not seen for more than 30 years. When I hear this song she’s still in her 20s, of course.
A song will put you tantalisingly close to the past, so close that you can almost reach out and touch it. The sound of ghosts again.
‘Lady Grinning Soul’ was a departure for Bowie, who had never before put such an open outpouring of desire on record. He had recently spoken of how his emotions often emerged in his lyrics in spite of his natural reservation, and here was the culmination.
I’m a pretty cold person. A very cold person, I find. I have a strong lyrical, emotional drive and I’m not sure where it comes from. I’m not sure if that’s really me coming through in the songs. They come out and I hear them afterward and I think, well, whoever wrote that really felt strongly about it. I can’t feel strongly. I get so numb. I find that I’m walking around numb. I’m a bit of an iceman.
Rolling Stone, 9 November 1972
The song provides a poignant counterpoint to Aladdin Sane’s more guitar-led glam rock tracks. Each of the Spiders From Mars stepped up to the mark, but the two clear stars were Mike Garson – who likened his strident piano introduction to “a Chopin, Liszt type of attitude of the late 1800s” – and Mick Ronson – whose deft flamenco-style guitar solo became the centrepiece of this endlessly beguiling piece.
‘Lady Grinning Soul’ brought out the romantic playing in me that comes from composers like Franz Liszt and Chopin. I mixed this with elements of Liberace and Rodger Williams, which were styles of music that were always put down because they were so mainstream. I played in a very undissonant way here, where Aladdin Sane is about as dissonant as you can get. Actually, ‘The Motel’ on Outside is my twenty-five-years-later version of ‘Lady Grinning Soul’!
Yet such European influences were at odds with the song’s origins. The subject of ‘Lady Grinning Soul’ is often identified as Claudia Lennear, an American soul singer who had previously inspired the Rolling Stones’ ‘Brown Sugar’.
She and Bowie met at a dinner party in 1972, towards the end of his US tour, and connected over a shared love of American R&B. Thereafter they met when their schedules allowed, in London, New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere, and remained on-off lovers for several years until around 1976, when an argument brought an end to their union.
Bowie never publicly confirmed that Lennear was his muse, and Amanda Lear, Bowie’s girlfriend from that time, has also been suggested as a contender. Lennear, however, is the more likely contender. Her orange Volkswagen was immortalised in the line “she’ll drive a Beetle car,” and she believed the line “the lady from another grinning soul” to be a reference to her mother.
The line about the clothes being strewn, that gets the eye roll. He’s so dramatic…
You never know how you’re affecting him. If you’re in his company, you don’t know what impression you’re making on him.
In 2013 Lennear appeared in a documentary about backing singers, 20 Feet From Stardom. The following year it was nominated for a Film Independent Spirit award, and Bowie called to wish her luck. During the call, she said, he told her: “You know you are my lady grinning soul.” They remained in touch via telephone, text and email, and exchanged their final messages on Christmas Eve 2015, just days before Bowie’s death.