On January 8th I poured paraffin into the ould Sony Vaio and gave her a few cranks to start her up. Through the coughing and clearing smog I noticed that David Bowie was trending on Twitter, and feared the worst. Not least because some know it alls in the popular press have been telling us recently that the Grand Dame will record no more, that his health might be deteriorating, and that’s it’s unlikely he even makes music anymore; he just sits in the corner of his Park avenue penthouse strumming a ukulele and remembering what it used to be like in old London town when every second person was a chimney sweep. Well, guess what, they were wrong. David has been working, and what’s more, on the occasion of his 66th birthday, he went as far as to release a new single. Take that, popular press know it alls! Zing!
The lack of hot air in the build up to the single’s release was nice, wasn’t it? There’s no need for the histrionics that surround the release and recording of other top artists albums, none of this leaking the album on the internet prior to release shit, no pretend lawsuits, no promulgating talk show puff. The surprise of being hit with a new Bowie track, on a Tuesday no less, with no warning was delicious. Any Bowie release is going to be big news, but do get a song out there, his first in a decade, without anyone having an inkling that he was even thinking about doing so, is the act of a mischievous genius. There’s an added frisson to his misbehaviour: the tremulous balaldeering and listing of previous haunts back in Berlin, the backward-looking stock taking is another red herring. As if to say, oh, look at poor, withered, old me. All I can do now is look backwards at what I have achieved, croak manfully above a mournful pianner. The same internet geniuses who told us mere months hence that all Bowie had done was now a finite collection nevermore to grow, came back and said, oh dear, HOW FRAIL HE SEEMS. Not a bit of it.
When the album came out, it wasn’t a collection of dirges, or funeral marches, or valedictions. It’s not a goodbye. Like all Bowie’s releases it’s nuanced, it’s produced and played by the very best, and it has no qualms about rocking out. That geezer in the video, morosely recalling his youth, is not prevalent. No, Bowie still has it, in the voice, probably in the hips. Thank god.
Growing up at any stage in the last forty years you were going to encounter a Bowie. Which one depended greatly on when you got your own FM radio or turntable. Despite Bowie being an omnipotent presence during my baby years, when I started to get music, via the radio, Bowie had transcended art to become pop. Just because he could, you understand, and being Bowie, the pop had to be the best pop there could be. There he was, on the telly, shiny, coiffed and bottle blonde, wearing suits that hung off him with a spectral ease. He was immensely beautiful. He got his arse out for the ‘China Girl’ video which Vincent Hanley played pretty much every week on MT USA. He wasn’t Michael Jackson, sure, but that thumping Tony Thompson drum sound and fat bottomed bass in ‘Let’s Dance’, along with the kinda political video, gave one a certain swagger when it was heard. It was pop music, but it made one feel older, more important. Even though many would dismiss the pop years are having less weight and importance than, say, Ziggy, or the Berlin trilogy, music is always importantly linked to the chronology of your life. When you’re awkward and weird and begining to think you know your own mind you take succor where you can. Maybe it’s Frankie saying ‘Relax’, maybe it’s ‘Let’s Dance’, whatever helps you walk down the street not looking at your own feet. Pop music is crucial in this way.
But that was pop. We love pop music as children, until we happen upon an identity, a few of them in fact, forged in the white heat of a wayward adolescence, punk, post punk, new wave, and Joy Division and all that stuff that made us feel important for different reasons. Important because we understood what a swizz it all was, what a joke the nine to five was, we knew that poncing about dancing like fairy with your floaty, peroxide hair and loving, of all fucking things, The Alien was old, old hat. Being nearly forty was old, old hat. Sitting around contemplating the grim reality of it all while writing songs about girls who won’t look at us because we rarely wash on a five stringed guitar was where it was at. But scratch the surface of every single one of our heroes and there’s this weird eyed, oddly hued outsider standing in the background. Once you move beyond Tonight and Let’s Dance and discover something like Low, suddenly the odd disjoint of the post punk industrial complex we’ve been annoying our parents with doesn’t seem so discrete.
The best thing about coming to Bowie, at any stage of your life, is the depth to his back catalogue, to his history, to his influences, a hermitage of art already there for you to plunder. Back in the eighties, albums were earned. We only had so much pocket money or C90 tapes, and shoplifting was becoming a perilous exercise. When we got an album, a new one on either wax or tape, we lived with it. There was no way of suddenly finding oneself with the entire back catalogue after 15 minutes of downloading, and then giving cursory glances to each before picking out the singles and sticking them on your ipod. We lived with these records. Bowie albums offered up more the more you listened. Sure, the singles were always pretty good, but he wasn’t, strangely enough, a singles man. The singles sounded better when in context, and although ‘Ashes to Ashes’ might be a stand out track on the hit parade, for sure, it was only one of a number of classics on the album.
From there we discover any number of other musics. Let’s say Can. Or Faust, just to be cool. Jacques Brel and Kurt Weil and Berthold Brecht, William Burroghs and Christopher Isherwood. An entire hinterland comes into view. The word “wanking” appearing like a slap when we sit down to listen to Aladdin Sane for the first time, and the giggles that ensue. From then we’re sitting in art class one day trying to draw Bowie as pierrot because suddenly Scary Monsters is the best album we’ve ever heard, and ‘Ashes to Ashes’ proves how right, and simultaneously wrong, pop music can be. Clearly it’s a hit, it’s an extraordinary tune, but how could the charts have appreciated it, when at the same time they lauded shite like, oh I don’t know, let’s say Nick Hayward. Sorry Nick.
And then there’s the girl with the blonde hair and the blue eyes who says ‘Sorrow’ is her song. The only thing I ever got from her was sorrow. That kind of heart-debilitating misery that only a two week “relationship” when you’re fifteen can give you. We all know that those breakups, and the ensuing misery which last infinitely longer than the encounter, need a soundtrack.
We listened to Tin Machine. I still have that very disc, which may or may not have been purloined form HMV Henry Street. It’s okay now, they’re gone, they won’t catch me. We listened to it, because we knew that Bowie owed us something. Tonight wasn’t good, David. Even we could see that. Bad, white reggae was not a good move. Tin Machine was like pub rock for grownups. Pubs where people wore black suits and drank Chablis and kinda looked like they might know something you don’t. It wasn’t terrific, to be fair, but it offered us something and it contained some distortion, tempo and licks that could fit in neatly with out loud, thrashy ethos. Importantly, it was a Bowie record (even though it isn’t a Bowie record, it’s a Tin Machine record, let’s be clear on that) that we could call our own. The discussion about Bowie had moved to a conversation with Bowie. We were in. Yeah, it wasn’t like running home from Golden Disks with “Heroes” under your arm back in 1976. In the pantheon of Bowie’s work, it was further down the pecking order, but still. We were included. Tin Machine even decamped to Ireland to record the second record. It clearly didn’t do them much good. It was a bad disk. But they played the Baggot Inn one night, and I was nearly there, but for the fact I didn’t believe the word when it came down. Bowie’s in the Baggot? Yeah right. The Baggot Inn was the first stage me and Bowie shared, albeit a year and half apart. The conversation was still ongoing.
I further developed my relationship with the work while inter-railing across Europe with a bad-choice girlfriend. Endless hours spent on trains listening to a tape that had Ziggy on one side and Diamond Dogs on the other. It was important to have Ziggy, a kind of brain sorbet, to help me get over the utter weirdness of DD. The all encompassing sojourn through a futuristic dystopia of that album, so suited to watching middle Europe’s industrial outposts flash past your window. It was conceived as a rock opera; Orwell’s 1984 as a musical, and the darkness and claustrophobia in the music is enthralling and cloying. Sweet Thing was a song that made me want to weep with its soft yearning, regret and violence. It was the soundtrack to some dewey-eyed Deep Thoughts. Four weeks with a Bad Choice leads to a lot of Deep Thoughts.
The conversation got weird. There’s a facile old argument I’ve heard may times, that Bowie stopped being good, bar a couple of singles, in 1980. The argument is, of course, utter bollocks. (There’s a copy of Uncut from 2008 which claims to list the top 30 Bowie greatest Bowie songs. One of them is post 1980, and it was chosen by Tony Visconti. It seems the literati are more comfortable with changless Bowie than he himself is.) The problem was always that the music he created in the 70’s was so great, so varied, it appealed to everyone. It crossed all divides. From Ziggy, to Iggy’s Idiot, from Mott The Hoople to cocaine soul. It’s not that Bowie has failed to recreate those dizzying, varying highs, it’s that no one has, nor ever will. Bowie was never going to try and recreate those days, he’s not going to start telling us he’s an alligator again. Why would he? He’s done that. He did it well. It’s in the bag. The essential necessity of Bowie is ch-ch-change. That’s why, in retrospect, it seems perfectly in character to follow wine bar blues rock with the polished neo-funk of Black Tie, White Noise, and to further follow that with the weird concept mess of Outside. The songs on Outside are terrific, the meandering narrative, less so. But remove them and you’re missing something, something of Bowie himself. You have to take this stuff on, the argument being that making an album about some bizarre futuristic art-murder whodunit, and propelling the narrative by putting in voice over bits acted by Bowie putting on daft voices is typically Bowie. It was a grand concept, supposed part one of a triptych, but it didn’t quite work. It still had tunes though. ‘The Heart’s Filthy Lesson’ wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Scary Monsters.
That the conversation goes off piste doesn’t matter, because even then there were albums to explore. Getting a job meant one had a certain amount of disposable income, and all the Bowie albums were being re-released. Picking them up, one by one, on CD, was a great joy. Moving around, from grimy bedsit to dingy bedsit, meant the record player, and the records themselves, were in storage somewhere. The old tapes were warped, or broken, or incomplete. We start again, filling in the blanks along the way. Young Americans is terrific after all, Station To Station may be a masterpiece. The Trilogy is still awe inspiring, but get this, Lodger might just be the pick of the bunch. Life is a pop of a cherry.
Throughout all this there’s this underlying question, of who the man is, who Bowie is. The thing is though, I never really cared. Someone as limber and as supple at changing his image and nous would be as hard to pin down as mercury. I’ve skimmed a few biographies of Bowie, but never gotten too involved. None of them, I felt, touched upon the actual work in any real way. The work spoke to me, individually, as it spoke to any number of people in their own unique way, the way that great work does. There was also the sneaking suspicion, from watching programs such as Alan Yentob’s Cracked Actor, where Bowie rambles on in that hammy, stagey drawl, glassy eyed and self medicated, about there being a fly in his milk, that getting closer to the person might in fact be detrimental to enjoying his work. But I decided that that was a long time ago, in another country, and besides…The only way to make sure was to meet the man himself, right?
Bowie was supposed to play Oxygen in 2004, busy as he was on his seemingly never ending world tour. For me, this was the moment, as I was also playing that Oxygen on that day. It was clear that I was going to meet the man. That was the plan, I had all the accreditation, I was, like him, an artiste. It never works out that way, but you gotta plan. Mostly a big artist will arrive just before stage time, possibly in their bus, walking from it to stage and straight back into it again, post show. Bowie isn’t going to wander about in wellies shaking hands and checking out no marks from the side of the stage. But still, there’s an opportunity to, if nothing else, steal a sandwich from the dressing room he’ll never use. But it didn’t happen. He cancelled at the last minute. Rumour had it at the time it was because some twit had chucked a lollipop up at the stage in Norway and it had blinded the Dame. A fucking lollipop. In the eye. In one of Bowie’s famously weird eyes. I cursed my luck, that some arsebrain had thrown confection stagewards and dashed the lifelong ambition of a random dude in another country. What a bastard that person was. In the end I had to make do with Fergie throwing a towel at me, and (shudder) The Darkness headlining. Fuck you and your lollipop.
But it wasn’t the lollipop what done it. It was all a bit more serious. Bowie had a heart attack, and required surgery. Bowie lived, he got on with it, he returned to stage, occasionally performing with other artists, but his recorded output dried up, and the tours looked like they were over. The scribes turned up, forming a neat line to write valedictions for the man. Bowie is over, we must now look upon his work as complete, we can pick over its bones. There will be no more new Bowie. If it were true, then there was some legacy there, a legacy that, after nearly 30 years of devotion, still gives me something new every day. If it were true, it was still a pretty magical ride, a fairly enthralling conversation.
But it wasn’t true. There was that day, when Bowie gave us all something new, something brand new. Of course Bowie wasn’t finished. The conversation continues, restarted overnight, a surprise event, an unseen move on the chess board. But knowing Bowie, as we do, it’s hardly unexpected. When that single arrived, out of nowhere, as instantly urgent as that time we sat around laughing at the image of Time, falling wanking to the floor, I got up and walked across the football field to punch the air, just like John Bender at the end of The Breakfast Club. We always knew it wasn’t over.
We’re quite aware what’s going on.