Has Bowie reached retirement age?
It's been a lean few years for fans of David Bowie, who turns 65 next weekend. Where is music's most influential rocker?
GROUND CONTROL to Major Tom. Ground control to Major Tom . . . It has been some time since we made radio contact with David Bowie, and, with his 65th birthday coming up on January 8th, the world’s most influential rocker is nowhere to be found.
His last big show was at the Hurricane Festival near Bremen, in Germany, in June 2004. Bowie collapsed backstage and was taken to a Hamburg hospital, where he underwent an emergency angioplasty. The next month, back on his home turf in Greenwich Village, in New York, Bowie set about getting himself back to full health.
Since then his stage appearances have amounted to occasional brief guest spots – with TV on the Radio, Arcade Fire and David Gilmour – and recordings have been even fewer: a techno tune, She Can Do That, in a 2005 action thriller, Stealth; a guest vocal on The Cynic, a track by the Danish act Kashmir; helping out Scarlett Johansson on her 2008 album of Tom Waits covers, Anywhere I Lay My Head.
A new album was slated for 2007, and even appeared in official release schedules, but it never materialised. The closest Bowie fans came to the holy grail of some new work from their stardust- scattering hero was the leaking in March of this year of Toy, a previously shelved album featuring new songs and fresh versions of already released material.
All of this leaves Bowie’s 2003 album, Reality, in an unenviable position: will it be his last official record?
“The essence of pop stardom is immaturity – a wretched little pseudomusical gift, a development of the capacity to shock, a short-lived notoriety, extreme depression, and a yielding to the suicidal impulse.” So wrote Anthony Burgess in 1986.
Not so for Ziggy Stardust. “I shall welcome it, lord yes,” Bowie said, in 1979, when asked how he would view his lined face at 50. “Pop stars are capable of growing old. An ageing rock star doesn’t opt out of life. When I’m 50, I’ll prove it.” And he did, by releasing three albums either side of his 50th year, Earthling(1997), Hours(1999) and Outside(2002). They divided fans and critics alike, Earthlingand Hourswith their techno- industrial-drum’n’bass approach and Outsidewith its elegant contemplation.
Outside of the music world, Bowie has been reasonably busy. He continues to paint and donate art to charitable organisations, he appeared in an episode of Ricky Gervais’s Extrasand, in 2008, he played a supporting role in a Wall Street drama called August.
But where is David Bowie now?
He has been in exile before, of course: nose-deep in cocaine in Switzerland, 1976; finding himself in Berlin, 1977; creative displacement in Tin Machine, 1989 to 1991. On and off, Bowie has repeatedly disengaged from society and celebrity, fashioning his own influential microculture as a result.
Forty years after inventing Ziggy Stardust, rock’s most celebrated fictional character, Bowie’s seditious approach to artistic reinvention and fame has been instrumental in developing the careers of, to name just two high-profile examples, Madonna and Lady Gaga.
Perhaps in light of the world’s preoccupation with instant, incessant communication, Bowie feels he has little left to say that will stick, particularly when from the mid-1990s to his last album, in 2003, his albums have effectively been shunned by a fanbase pining after his 1970s golden years.
And yet, stylistically at odds though Bowie might be with the likes of Leonard Cohen, Kate Bush and Bob Dylan, their respective resurgence, resilience and relentlessness surely give hope that the Thin White Duke will record again. If anyone can pull a rabbit out of the hat, it has to be rock’s greatest maverick and magician.
Mr Bowie, it’s time to leave the capsule if you dare.
Forty years of Bowie: From space to reality
Space Oddity(1969) Bowie’s hippy leanings endowed him with a soft-focus stare, curly locks and Afghan coat. Songs like The Wild Eyed Boy from Freecloud, Memory of a Free Festivaland Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazedexemplified a departure from this period of apparent innocence.
Hunky Dory(1972) He dressed like a woman and talked like a man, and already Bowie’s avowed bisexuality transferred itself on to his album sleeves. The songs here display a wildly eclectic palette, from pop anthems ( Changes, Life on Mars, Oh! You Pretty Things) and folksy ballads ( The Bewlay Brothers, Song for Bob Dylan) to swagger ( Queen Bitch) and beautiful self-indulgence ( Kooks).
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars(1972)
Enter Bowie’s perennial classic album: hard-edged rock’n’roll, sexuality crises and science friction. “Making love with his ego” – what was that all about? For teenagers high on emotion but low on life experience, this was simply revolutionary.
Station to Station(1976) The Thin White Duke phase: a skeletal Bowie, orange hair stretched back to create an austere portrayal of a Gitane-smoking crooner. The tunes were similarly styled: sinuous disco rhythms sidled up to victorious guitar riffs, resulting in single-minded tracks such as Golden Years, the title track and TVC15.
Low(1977) “On LowI can hear myself really struggling to get well.” If ever an album documented bleakness, it was this: Bowie’s great leap from rock to a new way of looking at life. Heavily influenced by Berlin’s early-20th-century expressionist art school Die Brücke (the bridge), and with Bowie going through a cocaine detox, this is a glistening (if glacial) new direction.
Heroes(1977) Like Low, Heroeswas structured into two distinct sides – song-based and instrumental. For once, the marketing people got it right: “There’s old wave, there’s new wave, and there’s David Bowie.” The title track is such a classic that not even X Factorcontestants could sully its reputation.
Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps)(1980) Released at a time when Joy Division, Human League and Bauhaus were all acknowledging their debt to Bowie, this sees the man showcase material that was his most adventurous and commercial, as evidenced in the single Ashes to Ashes, which effectively kickstarted the New Romantic movement.
Let’s Dance(1983) Bowie’s big commercial breakthrough. This is a bright, breezy R’n’B album with a brand new team of players and laden with smooth doozies such as the title track, China Girl(an Iggy Pop song) and the lithe ballad Without You.
The Buddha of Suburbia(1993) Released as the soundtrack to the BBC adaptation of Hanif Kureishi’s novel, this most closely resembles Heroes. Check out ambient minimalism, hook-laden pop and at least two classic Bowie songs you probably haven’t heard before: Untitled No 1and the title track.
‘hours . . .’(1999) In his early 50s, Bowie released an intimate album of subtle, effortlessly melodic songs about fear of growing old and self-doubt. “I wanted,” he said at the time, “to capture a universal angst felt by many people of my age.” Job done.
Heathen(2001)/ Reality(2003) Bowie’s final pair of albums to date reveals several things: a songwriter’s knack at developing melody lines that refuse to fade, and lyrics that are both evocative ( Heathen’s Everyone Says Hi), and dynamic ( Reality’s New Killer Star).
What are the chances of a Bowie comeback?
“On the merits of his 1970s work alone David Bowie is up there – way, way up there. The man is beyond a talent: a true star, an icon. As regards musicians who have more influence on other musicians, it would be, in my mind, the three Bs: The Beatles, Bowie and Bob Dylan. Between those three, it’s all in there.
“New music from him? Who knows? We all crave a new Bowie album, and not just a new album but also a ‘great’ new Bowie album. We also all know that Leonard Cohen has recently shown it’s never too late to make a comeback. I’m sure if Bowie wanted to he would do just that.
“I really don’t know if he’s retired from music, although I respect the fact that after an illness he has decided to go quiet and live his life with wife and family. There’s nothing worse that rock stars running around, acting their shoe size and not their age.
“My gut tells me he has something up his sleeve, but if not and he bows out, well, respect, then. And happy birthday, Mr Bowie.”
THE BAND MEMBER
“I was a member of Bowie’s band just over 10 years ago. It was the band that played HQ. It changed my life to be around someone with such an amazing body of work, who knows so much about art and music. He was very easy-going . . . I wasn’t the most qualified person for the job, but he really welcomed me in. He hung out with us a lot.
“Every rehearsal and appearance was run very professionally. It was a huge lesson: if Bowie isn’t a jerk, then nobody should be.
“I wouldn’t be surprised that he would stop making music for a while, only because I think he has very high standards and doesn’t just release music for the sake of it. I would be surprised, though, that he would stop paying attention to music, art, current affairs – it’s in his blood to be on top of all that.
“I think he has retired from doing a lot of collaborations, but I bet you he’s drumming up something spectacular.
“Where would I place him in the pantheon of rock music and rock stars? At the top.”
CHARLES SHAAR MURRAY
“In the early 1970s Bowie functioned as an incarnation of the power of the imagination, dramatising and exemplifying the individual’s capacity for reinvention and broadening the scope of what could be done with, and in, rock and pop – not to mention forever redefining the music’s concept of male sexuality and personal identity.
“Plus he had great songs, a fantastic band, a cool haircut, weird clothes and the guitarist Mick Ronson.
“Some major health issues notwithstanding, he’s sufficiently wealthy not to need to work unless he seriously wants to. After such a lengthy break, it would be impossible to predict whether he still feels the need to create new music, let alone how it might sound. It is, however, safe to assume there are still a couple of million people who’d want to hear it. I’m one of them.
“But I’d repeat that Bowie is in a position where he doesn’t have to record or perform. For the last near-decade he’s chosen not to while retaining the option to return whenever he may feel like it. After all, since the 1973 Hammersmith Odeon ‘farewell’ gig, he’s never said never again.”