On Slip Away, from his 2002 album, Heathen, David Bowie paid homage to the New Jersey born ‘Uncle’ Floyd Vivino. Vivino, born 1951, is a vaudeville-styled comic and pianist who hosted The Uncle Floyd Show on cable television between 1974 and 1998, when it was cancelled. The Uncle Floyd Show started out life as a children’s show hosted by Vivino, along with a cast of puppets, who outnumbered the human cast members by at least three to one. The puppets used by Vivano included Bones Boy and Oogie, both mentioned by Bowie in Slip Away.
Despite his intention for the show to appeal to children, it soon became apparent that its subtle adult humour wasn’t being understood by a young audience, so Vivino reworked the show so that it would appeal more to an older audience, as well as children. The show also featured appearances from musicians such as Cyndi Lauper, Bon Jovi, The Smithereens and The Ramones. The Ramones also mentioned The Uncle Floyd Show in their 1981 song, It’s Not My Place (in the 9 -5 World), from the album Pleasant Dreams: “Hanging out with Lester Bangs and all, Phil Spector has it all and all, Uncle Floyd Show’s on the TV”.
The cast of The Uncle Floyd Show first became aware of Bowie’s interest when he attended a live appearance at New York’s The Bottom Line nightclub on the 29th January 1981. Bowie met Vivino and told him how he had always had the show on whilst he was getting ready to perform in The Elephant Man, the Broadway play by Bernard Pomerance, in which he played the lead role of John Merrick. Bowie had been introduced to The Uncle Floyd Show by another fan, John Lennon.
Two decades later, Bowie rang Vivino and informed him that the tribute song was to be featured on Heathen. In an exclusive interview for davidbowie.com, Bowie said of the song:
“Both Slip Away and Afraid [also from Heathen] were recorded early last year and I liked these 2 so much, I just moved them forward to this album. We completely re-recorded Slip Away over one of Matt’s [drummer Matt Chamberlain] great loop parts. Back in the late 70’s, everyone I knew would rush home at a certain point in the afternoon to catch The Uncle Floyd Show. He was on UHF Channel 68 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 some such. They feature in the song. I just loved that show”.
Slip Away started out life as a song called Uncle Floyd, recorded for the officially unreleased Toy album, which Bowie had scheduled for release in 2001. Bowie intended Toy to feature new versions of some of his earliest songs as well as three new songs. However, the project morphed into creating the Heathen album instead. In terms of overall composition, Uncle Floyd is fairly similar to Slip Away, with its most notable difference being the inclusion of a segment from The Uncle Floyd Show in the intro. The Uncle Floyd Show intro was later used when Slip Away was played live on the Heathen Tour and the A Reality Tour to accompany Heathen’s follow up album Reality (2003). The use of the segment from The Uncle Floyd Show on Uncle Floyd adds another dimension to the composition and is particularly effective in concert, because despite its humorous nature, the clip features Oogie posing the sadly prophetic question, “Did you ever stop and think: If there wasn’t an Uncle Floyd Show, what everyone on the show would be doing?” Given the nature of the lyrics, which seem to evoke the feeling of Uncle Floyd, Oogie and Bones Boy being lost and forgotten nearly-stars (“Once a time, They nearly might have been, Bones and Oogie on a silver screen” and “… Some of us will always stay behind, Down in space, it’s always 1982, The joke we always knew”), this intro segment works perfectly.
There is a wonderful quality of maudlin beauty to both Slip Away and Uncle Floyd. Bowie uses his saddest sounding vocal tones to full effect and the gigantic, crashing, cinematic chorus, one of Bowie’s most underrated, seems to stretch further than the space that Uncle Floyd, Bones Boy and Oogie find themselves in. Then there is Bowie’s use of the stylophone, the toy instrument first used in Space Oddity (David Bowie, 1969), which just serves to add to the beauty of this stunning track. If you are not shedding a tear whilst listening to this song about lost heroes who should have been huge stars, then you are potentially dead. Just “don’t forget to keep your head warm”.
Footnote: Sadly, I couldn’t find a clip from The Uncle Floyd Show anywhere on YouTube.