Monday, 11 January 2016

David Bowie Was

David Bowie has died. He finally fell wanking to the floor. No longer will his god-given ass shimmy across the world's stage. He has died several times before, emerging afresh in a new body on each occasion, but no longer, amen.

Two years ago I went off to see David Bowie Is at the V and A. I'm not even a David Bowie fan, but it was a fantastic exhibition and it would have been a shame to miss it. It's impossible to be part of modern culture without knowing David Bowie. Like so many rock stars of his generation he was born into hum-drum suburban middle-class life and then willed himself into greatness, although he took longer to do it than his peers and the route was more circuitous. All of this happened before I was born.

In the last post I went off to Berlin. There is a lot to do and see but I felt that I had missed it, that I was too late to really appreciate it. So it is with David Bowie. I missed Bowie's rise and initial collision with fame. I witnessed some of Bowie's fallout, but by the time I was aware of pop music Bowie had stagnated. I remember the bleak video for "Let's Dance", but I also remember "Dancing in the Street", which was bleak in a completely different way.

I am in the position of knowing that Bowie meant a lot to people, without ever being able to experience him for the first time. He was always there. I simply can't appreciate the likes of Diamond Dogs and Aladdin Sane because they belong to a bygone age. They push buttons I do not have. The whole socio-sexual element of glam-era Bowie is a mystery. However his run from Station to Station right up to and including most of Scary Monsters is awesome. Conventional wisdom has it that his Berlin period was a clean break from the past, but Station feels like a prototype of Low, and the slicker sounds of Lodger lead in to Scary Monsters; there's a much cleaner break between Monsters and Let's Dance. Furthermore the first side of Low is a kind of mutated R and B, it's not really like Kraftwerk at all. "Breaking Glass" is Aleister Crowley singing drug-addled R&B over a prototype of the big drum sound that would be rediscovered in the early 1980s by Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins. The same sound pops up in "A New Career", which has the most Kraftwerk-esque moment on the record, but only for a few seconds.

Low is one of my favourite albums. It's only thirty-eight minutes long and most of the songs feel like sketches, but it covers a huge amount of ground, and you can see where so many other artists borrowed ideas from it. The ambient pieces have simple, affecting little one-finger melodies, but they develop and never become static. Side one is clever and inventive - Bowie's vocals are almost dry, the guitars are clipped, "What in the World" is happy, the overall sound is Talking Heads Peter Gabriel Devo crushed into a single record that predated all of the aforementioned by a couple of years. If the electronic noises were removed, "Always Crashing in the Same Car" could have been one of those anthemic Britpop singles. "Be My Wife" is simultaneously a big pose and sad, as if he really was desperately lonely.

Bowie's futuristic Berlin period was a misstep, but a brilliant one. Bowie assumed that the electronic sounds and cold precision of Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder were the future, and they were; but he thought they would be the future of next year, not five or ten years hence. Low sold to people who were expecting another set of pop songs but "Heroes" and Lodger bombed in the States and for the first time in a few years he found himself lost for direction. He pulled himself together for Let's Dance and always kept himself busy - the 1980s was the decade in which he really concentrated on film stardom - and perhaps because of that he never had the same focus on The David Bowie Musical Project as before.

He has left every place

Bowie was always compromised by his need to be a big star. While the likes of Scott Walker and David Sylvian  gave up on mainstream success and produced some extraordinary, challenging, or in Sylvian's case extremely listenable music throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Bowie struggled with a desire to be hip and avant-garde but also very popular at the same time, and I think the only albums on which he pulled it off were Aladdin Sane and Low. The irony is that his commercial prospects in the United States tanked in the late 1990s and never recovered, and even outside the States he operated on the same commercial level as e.g. Paul McCartney, with his albums peaking in the first week at number four and then dropping out of the charts. It's sad that he didn't, or couldn't go all the way; it's not as if he was short of money. He might have used his pioneering website to release challenging new music... and perhaps he did, but I have the impression he never really got a handle on BowieNet. It was too ambitious.

David Bowie Is coincided with the release of his last-but-one-in-the-final-sense-of-the-word-last album The Next Day, and its lead single "Where are we now". A line from that song haunted me. "Where are we now, where are we now / the moment you know, you know, you know".

The moment you know what? I assumed it was a reference to his heart problems. In 2004 he had emergency heart surgery, and the doctor must have taken him aside and told him to knock it off. That he wasn't young any more. Bowie retired from touring shortly afterwards. The moment you know you're closer to the end than the beginning, that you came closer to the end than you expected.

In the end it wasn't heart disease that got him, it was the other thing. He had been ill for eighteen months and "Where are we now" has a palpable sadness to it, as if he was taking stock of his life. Most of the press has concentrated on his last-in-the-final-sense-of-the-word single "Lazarus". I think of that song and "Where are we now" as two halves of a double-A on the topic of death and regret.

Back then I wrote that there is a Last Chance to See quality to him now. At the age of 66 David Bowie has done far more with his life than you or I. He is happily married to a woman he loves and he wants for nothing. His son, Duncan Jones, is a successful indie filmmaker who seems poised for much bigger things. What does he have left to look forward to?

I'm not happy with that conclusion. There is always something to look forward to if you are a good man who has lived well. And it's unfair to single out his son and ignore the rest of his family. They have a future too.

The David Bowie Is exhibition continues. It has slowly toured the world, like Bob Dylan. It's currently on at the Groninger Museum in the Netherlands, Inevitably, used prices of the limited edition clear vinyl version of his new album, Blackstar, have soared. The album is actually called , but that doesn't work because this blog has a black background. I could write it like this - - but that's wrong. Every second I think of death is a second death has robbed from me.