In the studio
With the lead single completed, recording for the album continued at Trident on 16 July 1969, with Tony Visconti producing. Three songs – ‘Janine’, ‘An Occasional Dream’, and ‘Letter To Hermione’ – were laid down on that day, with the sessions running from 2-5pm and from 7pm to midnight.
This is a beautiful love song to the woman in his life at the time, Hermione. He had been singing this song live in his Arts Lab sets. Here he is joined by the effervescent style of Keith Christmas on acoustic guitar. David is playing his trusty 12-string.
Five Years (1969–1973) book
Visconti later expressed dissatisfaction with the second David Bowie album, putting it down to his inexperience in the studio. He did, however, express pride in a handful of songs including ‘Letter To Hermione’.
I must confess that my work was naive (bordering on sloppy) on this album. It was my second album production, and I really didn’t know too much about the quality control of sound and how to turbo-charge the sound of instruments for rock – I always left it up to the engineer, and this young Visconti couldn’t attract or afford the talents of the Geoff Emerick or Glyn Johns yet. I am, however, proud of several tracks where I felt more comfortable in my capacity of bass player and recorder player, as in ‘Letter To Hermione’ and ‘An Occasional Dream’.
‘Letter To Hermione’ was included in four different guises on the 2019 box set Conversation Piece. A demo of the song, recorded around April 1969 with John ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson, titled ‘I’m Not Quite’ had also been released on The ‘Mercury’ Demos earlier in 2019.
‘I’m Not Quite’ featured almost identical lyrics to ‘Letter To Hermione’, with a couple of exceptions: Bowie sang “I hear you sparkle like a different girl” instead of They say you sparkle like a different girl”, and “He makes you laugh, he gives you every chance/He treats you well and brings you out in style” instead of “He makes you laugh, he brings you out in style/He treats you well and makes you up real fine”.
Conversation Piece also included the 1969 stereo version, an early mix also from that year, and a new 2019 mix by producer Tony Visconti.
I discovered it probably in reverse order. It’s on the Space Oddity album in 1969. When I first got into Bowie it was for “Heroes” and I worked my way backwards to Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane. And, then I heard this song and of course the badge I was wearing of Bowie was one of this artistic, fashionable, trendsetting, androgyne – “I’m different.” What I wasn’t wearing was, “I’m a brilliant songwriter of love songs.” And, it’s a total surprise. It’s stripped down. Just like Bob Dylan surprises you sometimes. Just as most people think Dylan is a political singer-songwriter and then he comes out with ‘If You See Her, Say Hello’, and you go, “Oh my God.” The same with Bowie. ‘Letter To Hermione’ starts off, “The hand that wrote this letter sweeps the pillow clean…” It sounds like Keats. And then, “Something tells me that you hide/When all the world is warm and tired/You cry a little in the dark/Well, so do I.” That’s amazing. “Did you ever call my name just by mistake?” This guy just hoping. It’s beautiful. It’s beautiful.
Uncut, March 2008