Saturday, January 16, 2016

David Bowie

Monday morning, the day before my fortieth birthday, I went into the shower and switched on the radio. Nick Robinson was sort-of apologising for cutting an interview short, saying excitedly that they were pressed for time because of ‘the extraordinary news about David Bowie’. He was much too excited, actually, without seeming to give a damn for anything but the News Event side of it (mental note: stop listening to his programme). It seemed impossible news, three days after Bowie’s new album came out on his birthday. That’s not what happened the last time an album came out on his birthday. We know the drill now: he’s back, but he doesn’t want to talk. He’ll put out records that try to be David Bowie records again, and we’ll love him for it, even if they don’t quite manage to be. Maybe they even will, and he’ll close in on Scott Walker in terms of an accelerated late blossoming. ★ sounded good on Saturday, kept its tone better than The Next Day, I thought. He’s cleared the cobwebs, we’re ready for the off. I’m sure he won’t mind that I never bothered with Heathen, Reality, ‘Hours…’ or Earthling. He certainly won’t now, although looking online for Jon Wilde’s Melody Maker review of Tin Machine II, I found the aftermath: ‘Bowie’s PR later told me that Bowie read it and cried when he got to the last line. I’m not proud of that.’ The last line, from memory: ‘Sit down man, you’re a bloody disgrace’. He did care about the battering his reputation took, and the music press, in those days, could be as vicious as the tabloid press still is now. Wilde’s review set out the good against the bad, and contained a list of songs (‘Win’, ‘TVC 15’, ‘Heroes’, ‘Ashes to Ashes’) which served as a handy guide to the recent reissues of all those great ’70s albums. It was archetypal: don’t even think of listening to anything outside the Space Oddity-to-Scary Monsters window. That was the drill then. And now? It’s too late to be hateful. That’s a liberating thing.

Friday morning, 23rd January 1976. Eleven days old, I precociously set Station to Station on the turntable… well maybe not. But in 1991, I lapped up those re-issues. Ziggy Stardust makes me think of a nursery called Tiggywinkles at which I did work experience, and snuck in a first listen on the walk there from school, having borrowed it from Wolverhampton Central Library at lunchtime. Low makes me think of Florida, where you’re supposed to go to enjoy theme parks, but I still found a record shop and bought that. Back home, I got a non-re-issue of Aladdin Sane from Time Machine records, which someone had presumably sold in order to upgrade. “Heroes” was in Esso’s Tiger Tokens catalogue, and Dad kindly came through there. I don’t remember where I got Hunky Dory from, which probably means it was HMV. At university, my friend and flatmate Brian had a good line of argument about how dark Hunky Dory is. ‘And don’t give me that about “Fill Your Heart”, it’s a cover’. He listened to Bowie and Marvin Gaye non-stop, and I must admit this over-exposure over several years put me off a bit. He was more in love with the musicianship of the records than I was: another argument we had was about Bowie’s voice, which I said wasn’t that great, and he immediately walked off down a side street. He was right there, but what I was getting at was something to do with artifice and lack of warmth (Brian Wilson was my counter-argument). Momus’ beautiful tribute blog post has a riposte to that, playing with the idea that his death is a hoax:
He’d vicariously lap up the tributes, relish the tears, laughing at our sentimentality about someone we stereotyped, sometimes, as cocaine-cold, when in fact he was a histrionic volcano of emotion.
Poor Momus. Poor Brian. I hope they’re OK. I hope the explosion of affection there has been for Bowie on social media (which Brian probably hates) continues for a good while yet. It feels deserved, and Bowie’s exit feels like a riposte, itself, to the ’90s-and-onwards music press narrative. He’s outsmarted them all, with a move at once Pop and inarguably authentic. He has shown us that there is no such divide. Jon Wilde complained in 1991 that he couldn’t (or didn’t) do breathtaking anymore. With the last breath in his body, he has taken ours one last time. It’s not too late to be grateful.

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