Somehow, I can’t help reading vast amounts of the staggering mountain of words being churned out about Mr Bowie. I dodge some of it, but otherwise, it’s that proverbial road accident.
Besides, some of it’s genuinely informative. And some of it’s genuinely moving. The stuff that doesn’t lapse into those hopelessly tired, moth-eaten platitudes that I’ve lived long enough to find irredeemably tiresome. (“We’ll never see his/her like again” is one of my faves.)
Well, I know if I spewed enough of my own words without holding myself in check, I’d excrete my share of duds. It goes with the territory. Which is exactly why I’ve held myself in check. That, and just feeling a bit shit.
This is Bowie last September. He looks pretty good. Better than in a lot of the other recent promotional materials, actually. That’s something.
I didn’t know Bowie; I saw him live once, never met him, obtained but one autograph indirectly—no contact whatsoever. I guess I have a right to reflect on the last week and, likely as not, be read by a couple of dozen people. No harm done. And it has been a strange and fucked-up week. I’ve felt depressed and lethargic. I’ve read—as noted—far, far too much of the online Bowie-themed rabble, and he’s been on my mind a lot.
But I haven’t listened to his music much. In fact, only today (briefly) has Bowie been coming through my own sound system, after I transferred rips of the 2015 remasters of The Man Who Sold the World and Hunky Dory to my ‘jukebox’ machine. I also dumped Blackstar on there, but not a second of it did I listen to. I don’t know when I will. I have violently mixed feelings about this album. On the one hand, it’s certainly a very good album, even if not close to the creative/experimental tour de force so many of the reviews made it out to be. On the other hand, I find (with 20/20 hindsight) much of its content to be upsetting and morbid.
It’s dark as hell. Even when it kinda doesn’t sound dark, the words say otherwise. It’s not so much life-affirming as death-affirming, and however worthy that might be, I don’t find it very inviting. Not right now. It’s too close. It’s too raw.
Let me say one thing. Bowie’s death, for me, was a massive shock, but not a surprise. I thought he looked clearly very fragile on the promo pics and the videos, and very, very different to 2013 (Next Day era), or even the couple of informal shots from mid-2014. You try to ignore these things and be positive. I did my best. I’d lived with concern about Bowie’s health for about nine years anyway.
No, I don’t mean the June 2004 heart attack in Germany. That was a very alarming period, of course, and I remember it only too well. But after the 2004 problems, Bowie was—for 18 months, anyway—working hard to get back into gear. He was trying to eat well, working out, dropping hints of working on new songs, and starting to make live appearances on stage—the odd cameo appearance or couple of songs… he seemed to be easing himself back into the swing of things. This culminated in the announcement of a two-hour live show at the end of the Highline Festival he was to be curating in May 2007. Many, many people were thrilled about this. It was totally the “BOWIE’S BACK” moment we’d hoped for since the horrible events of June ’04. Many had booked flights, tickets, made all arrangements, and I was about five minutes away from doing so myself, when—literally a few weeks before the event was supposed to be happening—the concert was CANCELLED.
Reason? He was too busy, “due to ongoing work on a project.” Even at that time, I said this was an obvious excuse. We never heard a single other word about this alleged project. Some people (those who’d booked tickets, etc) were quite angry. Personally, I was just sad and concerned. Bowie did actually appear (briefly) at the festival—he introduced Ricky Gervais and sang a couple of lines from that song he did on Extras. After that—he never gave another interview (he’d given a couple in the previous year), never sang another note in public, and his appearances in any capacity became increasingly rare.
After a few years of him being gone, effectively, I’d come to terms with it. Fine. I had no doubt he’d experienced some kind of ‘problem’ around the start of 2007 and I just hoped he was okay and making the most of his retirement.
January 2013: “Where Are We Now?”—and the album, The Next Day, in March—changed it all. He was back. Except… he wasn’t. Not really. Some things bothered me. Especially Tony Visconti’s press comments, well-meant but unconvincingly OTT in their insistence on Bowie’s health—Bowie was ‘rosy-cheeked’, he told us, which was a bizarre concept at best. His singing voice in the studio, Tony claimed, was so strong that you had to keep your distance. (He repeated this weird assertion during the Blackstar promo interviews too.) I like Tony, but I wouldn’t want him lying on my behalf. He’s a truly awful liar.
Some of Bowie’s vocals on TND sounded quite strained. Like nothing he’d ever recorded before. I had no doubt he wasn’t on all cylinders, but in the end I came to terms with it—The Next Day was a patchy, confusing album, but its peaks were undoubtedly excellent. Things were not the same—there was an elephant sitting in the corner, silently—but, overall, the glass was half full.
On Blackstar, Bowie mostly avoided ‘belting it out’. Even if this might indicate greater frailty than the previous album, the better way to view it is that he stayed inside his limitations more carefully, and that, in my view, makes for more comfortable listening. It’s a shame, then, that I don’t know when I’ll be hearing it again.
I hope I can return to the work with a cleaner slate. The clutter and complications can be brushed aside. The work itself survives outside of all that. And that, incidentally, is the biggest cliché I’ve written here, so it’s time to go.
I shall be back with more on Bowie in a day or three. Later.
(PS. The title track of Blackstar came on the radio while writing this. It didn’t upset me unduly. What the hey.)