INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
Q FEBRUARY 2017 - by Dorian Lynskey
BOWIE AT SEVENTY
He may have died in January, but we still live in David Bowie's world, writes Dorian Lynskey.
On June 24, the day after the EU referendum, the actor Paul Bettany tweeted: "In January I dismissed my mate's theory that David Bowie was the glue holding the universe together but I don't know, man... I don't know..." Over twenty-thousand retweets later, it's clearly a popular hypothesis. It did seem as if this shocking year, when all the worst people thrived while many of the best, including Prince and Leonard Cohen, were snatched away (and you might superstitiously feel there were some connection), really got started on January 11, when the news broke that David Bowie had passed away the day before.
What followed was an extraordinary example of collective mourning in the social media age. Fans came together to share reflections, anecdotes, interviews, songs and YouTube clips, bathing their sense of loss in communal love and awe. One reason the sorrowing lasted longer than it does for most musicians is that there were so many different Bowies to celebrate, and so many ways in which to do it. Broadcaster Adam Buxton captured this multiplicity in his live events and podcasts, combining geekish fandom, witty irreverence and palpable grief. For Buxton, the peak '80s silliness of Labyrinth was as important as the arctic cool of the Berlin period. A slew of live cover versions further demonstrated that anyone can find a Bowie song that speaks to them: rock'n'roll Bowie (Springsteen and Madonna separately singing Rebel Rebel), melancholy Bowie (Beck and Nirvana's rhythm section collaborating on The Man Who Sold The World), quirky Bowie (Madness covering Kooks), anthemic Bowie (Coldplay doing "Heroes") and more.
All of these reactions spun in orbit around Blackstar. If you felt that Bowie's last album was slightly overrated for sentimental reasons, then bear in mind that the reviews came out before he died, and that nobody made grand claims about Prince's HITnRUN Phase Two. It's a great record regardless of the circumstances. What the revelation of Bowie's terminal cancer did was make Blackstar's mere existence uplifting. How do you spend your days when you know they're numbered? Travel the world? Tie up loose ends? Make a bucket list? For Bowie the answer was: you work, you create, because that's what you do. Lazarus playwright Enda Walsh has spoken about "watching somebody who's ill and thinking, 'They've still got so much work in them!"' Dying didn't slow Bowie down; it made him move at the speed of life. And unlike Cohen's wintry swansong You Want It Darker, Blackstar was less a final summation of a lifetime's work than one last leap into the future.
Apart from plunging into Blackstar's maze of meanings, the best way to honour Bowie in the months following his death was to reconnect with his other music, especially great albums such as Outside, which were overshadowed by his imperial phase. The second in a planned series of reissues but the first to appear posthumously, the boxset Who Can I Be Now? (1974-1976) shed new light on his achievements. By including The Gouster, an early version of the album that became Young Americans, it invited fans to consider the hard work and thought that lay behind Bowie's seemingly effortless transitions. Meanwhile, the fortieth anniversary reissue of The Man Who Fell To Earth, his finest film, was an opportunity to remember him as an actor. And the Sotheby's auction of his art collection was a timely reminder that his curiosity and good taste extended far beyond music. He was an exceptional curator of brave and beautiful things.
Explicit musical tributes, however, were a tricky undertaking which often ended up underscoring what a singular, inimitable artist Bowie was. Lorde did justice to Life On Mars? at the Brit Awards, backed by veteran Bowie collaborators including Mike Garson and Earl Slick, but Lady Gaga's hectic medley at the Grammys was all sugar and glitz, while the BBC Proms show missed the mark more often that not. If one performance was too showbiz, then the other was too wilfully avant-garde. Bowie's genius was to bridge the gap between the two worlds with panache.
That doesn't mean that he never tripped up. Bowie was a pop lodestar because he never stopped experimenting, not because all of those experiments worked. Some, notably the Glass Spider Tour and Tin Machine, were spectacular misfires. So it felt appropriate to the reality of the man rather than the myth that Lazarus, the stage musical he was working on alongside Blackstar, was so divisive. If Lazarus had come along twenty years ago, during Bowie's taken-for-granted years, it would possibly have been regarded as one of his audacious follies. Even with the emotional kick provided by his absence, many fans came away from the London run bewildered by the dream-like plot and unconvinced by the Broadway re-imaginings of his classic songs. It provided one final twist. In contrast to the perfect, tombstone-like finality of Blackstar, Lazarus was a powerful reminder of Bowie's whims, eccentricities, mysteries and imperfections.
Lazarus's greatest gift was the three new songs Bowie wrote for the show and recorded himself for the soundtrack, especially the elegiac No Plan. Even as it spoke to the purgatorial condition of the play's characters, trapped between life and death, the song doubled as a graceful farewell from Bowie himself: "All the things that are my life / My moods, my beliefs, my desires / Me alone, nothing to regret / This is no place, but here I am / This is not quite yet."
On January 8, which would have been his seventieth birthday, dozens of musicians who played with Bowie will be performing with guest vocalists at benefit shows around the world under the banner Celebrating David Bowie. At this point he somehow seems as central to popular culture as he has ever been: a benevolent, intangible presence whose influence is never-ending and whose memory is a spur to other artists to be bold and never stop. This is no place, but here he is.