Where is David Bowie now?
By ALAN JENKINS
Reality, in 2003, was a big hit and by no means an inferior work, even by the standards – the highest there are, in popular music – of David Bowie. News, alarming news, to his admirers, followed a year or so later: he had suffered a heart attack, he was exhausted, he was retiring from music-making to spend the autumn of his days with wife and daughter in New York. Ten years on and, on the eve of his sixty-sixth birthday, without so much as a whisper of pre-publicity and with barely a twitch on Twitter, he has released a new song on his website – a song-plus-video, a hybrid form mastered early by Bowie, and never done better by anyone else – which has instantly become the most-downloaded song currently to be heard on the planet.
If there are any visitors to this website who don’t know who David Bowie is or don’t care what he does, I can only ask them to give five minutes of their time to Where Are We Now? – song-plus-video – and share in the elation I imagine all TLS readers must feel at the arrival of a masterpiece. It is a slow, very slow song, full of brought-low sadness and high drama, announcing itself from its first crashing piano chords as utterly, inimitably a Bowie song – and a “big” one, perhaps a huge one, of the magnitude of Always Crashing in the Same Car, Heroes and Fantastic Voyage; and it is to the musical and emotional ambience – whirling synthesizers, echoey drums, throat-tightening melody, hair-raisingly exposed, yearning lyric – of Bowie’s great Berlin years, the years of Low, Heroes and Lodger, that this song explicitly, elegiacally returns. There is an “I”, and a “you” the singer addresses, and a litany of Berlin place-names, sites of memory haunted by a man “lost in time” who is, he says, “walking the dead”, all evoked in a defiantly tremulous vocal line that gathers itself to the great operatic outcry of a refrain, “Where are we now?”. To those who are used to hearing the thunderous climax of “Heroes” – “I, I remember, standing by the Wall /… And the guns shot above our heads / And we kissed / As if nothing could fall / And the shame / Was on the other side” – or the terrible climbing crescendo of “Fantastic Voyage” – “And I’ll never say anything nice again, how can I”? – echoing round their heads at variously unpropitious moments, the shiver of recognition and sombre, paradoxical joy they feel will be familiar.
Almost from the first and unfailingly ever since, Bowie has been a byword for musical boldness and invention. His instinctive power as a lyricist has perhaps been somewhat overlooked – his characteristic note a combination of the shy and portentous, of confessional detail and unembarrassed declamation, of raw truthfulness and authentically barmy allegorizing. “Where…?” takes us haltingly into personal history and personal mortality, distilling from its simple, beautiful progressions an atmosphere of bewildered sorrow that is not entirely dispelled by the tender-stoical declarations of the final moments. There are accompanying grainy street scenes, pre- and post-Wall, there are cluttered, semi-darkened interiors and the truly weird puppet-cartoon presentation of the singer and an unidentified female companion, faces stuffed into fairground frames, she listening with unabashed curiosity and occasional delight as he sings – his own face cruelly distorted to a semi-caricature of ageing and grief. “We could steal time”, Bowie sang in “Heroes”; the singer of “Where Are We Now?” knows that time is stealing him, his friends, his life. The whole is absorbing, harrowing, moving, with the familiar-and-strange unforgettableness that Bowie more than any living musician (and more than most living poets) seems able, time after time, to achieve.