Heathen album coverWritten by: David Bowie
Recorded: October-November 2000; August 2001 – January 2002
Producers: David Bowie, Tony Visconti

Released: 10 June 2002

Available on:
Heathen
A Reality Tour

Personnel

David Bowie: vocals, piano, Stylophone
Gerry Leonard, David Torn: guitar
Tony Levin: bass guitar
Jordan Rudess: keyboards
Matt Chamberlain: drums

Originally recorded as ‘Uncle Floyd’ during the Toy sessions, the majestic ballad ‘Slip Away’ was reworked for the Heathen album.

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. We completely re-recorded ‘Slip Away’, over one of Matt’s great loop parts.
David Bowie
Livewire magazine, 16 June 2002

The song was inspired by The Uncle Floyd Show, starring Floyd Vivino. The show, which featured comedy, puppetry and music, initially aired in New York and New Jersey 1974, continuing until 1998. A faux children’s show, much of the comedy was aimed at adults. Floyd’s puppet sidekicks included Oogie the clone and Bones Boy the skeleton, and all three were name checked in the lyrics of ‘Slip Away’.

Bowie was introduced to the show by John Lennon, who watched it with his young son Sean. From September 1980 to January 1981 Bowie starred in The Elephant Man at New York’s Booth Theatre, and began watching The Uncle Floyd Show while being made up for the role each day. Bowie’s friend Iggy Pop was another fan of the show, which was also namechecked in the Ramones’ 1981 song ‘It’s Not My Place (In The 9 To 5 World)’.

In 1981 Bowie attended a live Uncle Floyd Show at the Bottom Line in Manhattan, and was photographed wearing an Uncle Floyd button badge. Afterwards he met Floyd backstage, although the comedian was initially unaware of whom Bowie was.

Back in the late ’70s, everyone that I knew would rush home at a certain point in the afternoon to catch the Uncle Floyd show. He was on cable and the show looked like it was done out of his living room in New Jersey. All his pals were involved and it was a hoot. It had that Soupy Sales kind of appeal and though ostensibly aimed at kids, I knew so many people of my age who just wouldn’t miss it. We would be on the floor it was so funny. Two of the regulars on the show were Oogie and Bones Boy, ridiculous puppets made out of ping-pong balls or somesuch. They feature in the song. I just loved that show.
David Bowie
Livewire magazine, 16 June 2002

The song was first recorded in October 2000 during the sessions for the long-delayed Toy album. It was initially titled ‘Uncle Floyd’, and featured a hastily-assembled choir of musicians, production staff, and studio visitors.

‘Uncle Floyd’ was a moody track which began its life with a semi out-of-tune piano and some grainy synth strings which sounded like they were pulled off of an old 78 RPM record. Both sounds gave the effect of someone playing in a basement of some small, sad, lonely house. This really came to life with the addition of the Gerry Leonard’s guitar and Lisa Germano’s violin (she returned to NYC for another round of overdubbing on the new songs)…

Everyone was really in love with ‘Uncle Floyd’, so we knew it had to be on the record. We followed the example of ‘Afraid’ from the previous week, and David went off on his own to complete the lyric while I started mixing the track. By the time I had a decent rough mix, he was finished. In typical style, he sang around 95% of it in the first take – it gave Hector and I the chills. It was intense, a feeling not at all hindered by the haunting violin from Lisa and the many spooky-isms from Gerry. It’s ended up being a favorite of anyone who’s heard it so far. For the outro, we employed a chorus of people rounded up on the spot – Sterling and Holly Palmer, Coco, Sean McCaul of the Looking Glass staff (and an amazing talent on the vibes), and a band called Stretch Princess who happened to be recording in Studio B with Pete Keppler. Whoever was in the building with vocal cords got hauled in.

Mark Plati
markplati.com

‘Uncle Floyd’ was left off the officially-released Toy in 2021, although the original recording has long been available as a bootleg. The Heathen version, with a suitably soaring string arrangement by co-producer Tony Visconti, was recorded a year later at Allaire Studios, with overdubs in early 2002 at Looking Glass Studios.

I wanted something on the album that pointed to a nicer time, a better time, a more fun time, even if it wasn’t necessarily true. For me it was a fun time, the late ’70s, it really was. It was an American show and it was on some unheard-of cable station out of New Jersey and I think he did the show in his living room. The Ramones played the show quite a few times cause they also loved it.

Saying ‘Uncle Floyd where are you now?’ is really like Ray Davies saying ‘Where Have All The Good Times Gone?’ So yes, that’s my yearning song, as far as looking backwards. But most of it is about looking rather anxiously into the future.

David Bowie, 2002

Visconti singled out the work of keyboard player Jordan Rudess as a particular highlight of ‘Slip Away’.

Jordan Rudess of Dream Theater joined us [in the studio]. Ironically, despite the keyboard wizard he is, we used his talents mostly on acoustic piano and Hammond organ. David B. played a lot of keyboard work already on all the songs and Jordan’s additional synthesizer work was obscuring some of the simplicity of David’s parts. You can hear Jordan at his best on ‘Slip Away’ and ‘5:15 The Angels Have Gone’.
Tony Visconti
tonyvisconti.com

Also featured on the song was the Stylophone, the electronic instrument famously used by Bowie on ‘Space Oddity’ and ‘After All’, and revived in the early 21st Century for use on ‘Your Turn To Drive’, ‘Pictures Of Lily’, ‘Heathen (The Rays)’, and ‘Safe’.

The Stylophone is one of the looniest of pre-synths. It came out in the sixties and I first used it on ‘Space Oddity’ in 1969 I think it was. It was really cheap and the tone is nasty as hell. It only plays one note at a time and you have to use a stylus to get at the keyboard. Like using a pen. It has no volume control so you do that by putting your hand over the speaker. But it’s got something about it. You hear it really well at the end of ‘Slip Away’. Tony suggested that I cover the top note of some of his string parts with it and it gives them a kind of lift.
David Bowie
Livewire magazine, 16 June 2002

Live performances

‘Slip Away’ was performed by David Bowie a total of 73 times between 2002 and 2004, throughout much of the Heathen Tour and A Reality Tour.

This is another new song. It’s about a television hero in America from the ’70s, that myself and Lennon and Iggy Pop used to watch in the afternoons. Crazy guy, and we were very adult and used to love fooling around watching this guy, Uncle Floyd. And his song is called ‘Slip Away’.
David Bowie
Max Schmeling Halle, Berlin, 22 September 2002

Bowie’s first performance of the song was on 11 June 2002 at New York’s Roseland Ballroom, with the final outing taking place on 5 June 2004 at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel, New Jersey.

He also performed ‘Slip Away’ on the television shows A&E Live by Request, Friday Night with Jonathan Ross, Bingolotto, and The Early Show.

During A Reality Tour, Bowie prefaced the song with dialogue from The Uncle Floyd Show, as he did on the original Toy version.

Sometimes you stumble across a few chords that put you in a reflective place. ‘Slip Away’ started like that. It’s odd but even when I was a kid, I would write about ‘old and other times’ as though I had a lot of years behind me. Now I do, so there is a difference in the weight of memory. When you’re young, you’re still ‘becoming’, now at my age I am more concerned with ‘being’. And not too long from now I’ll be driven by surviving, I’m sure. I kind of miss that ‘becoming’ stage, as most times you really don’t know what’s around the corner. Now, of course, I’ve kind of knocked on the door and heard a muffled answer. Nevertheless, I still don’t know what the voice is saying, or even what language it’s in.
David Bowie
Livewire magazine, 16 June 2002
Previous song: ‘Cactus’
Next song: ‘Slow Burn’