David Bowie: “Where Are We Now?”

Where were we then? David Bowie’s first solo single in more than nine years dropped out of nowhere on his 66th birthday—January 8th 2013. (Also Elvis Presley’s 78th birthday, of course.)

I woke up that morning to find social media (I still used social media quite extensively, if not enthusiastically, back then) buzzing with it. Still groggy and sipping a coffee, I tried to absorb the song and its video, while dutifully sharing my own reaction amidst the digital cacophony.

Let’s skip back about 15 months. Around the Fall of 2011, there had actually been a couple of rumours about Bowie. Sure, there were rumours about his health—but what I mean is rumours about his recording activities.

Since his heart attack on June 25th 2004—while performing at the Hurricane Festival in Germany—and subsequent emergency surgery, Bowie had not recorded much. And following a few brief stage (re)appearances, he stopped performing live after November 2006, cancelling a planned two-hour concert in May 2007, at the Highline Festival, at short notice. It would appear that his heart problems had recurred (requiring a second surgery—some hints of which are to be found here), and after this not only did he not appear on stage, he also never gave a single interview from 2007 until his death. It seemed for a time he was permanently retired, although he supposedly worked a little on a project with Mike Garson—he of the epic piano work on Aladdin Sane‘s title track!—sometime around 2008, which never got off the ground.

So, the 2011 rumours. One fan claimed he knew a guy who knew a guy… who was working at the studio (The Magic Shop in NYC, which closed down a month after Bowie’s death) where Bowie was recording a new album. Another guy on some cheapjack showbiz gossip site said he’d been told Bowie was busy at work on a new album. And so on. Could be something, could be nothing. But I had a slightly stronger clue than that.

David Bowie 2011
Bowie, in 2011, makes his feelings about being photographed subtly apparent…

On Facebook, towards the end of 2011 (late November or early December, maybe), there was this big thread about the state of modern music, and longtime Bowie producer/friend Tony Visconti chimed in: “Hmmm, maybe it’s time for a new Bowie album!”

Now, I didn’t get the feeling this comment was as altogether casual as it was meant to seem. As we now know, Tony, along with all the other crew working on the new Bowie album (since early 2011), were held to Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs). And none of these guys broke their silence—at least, not obviously and not publicly. But Tony had this mischievous little moment and, as it turned out, I read it exactly right.

I shared my suspicion with a fellow Bowie fan I’d known for some years. He was like, “Welllll… y’never know.” He wasn’t at all convinced, and who can blame him? I stuck to my guns, though. For a couple or three months, and then my belief flagged a bit. By the end of 2012, I think I’d damn near forgotten all about it. So, January 8th did indeed take me by surprise…

“Where Are We Now?”, which was recorded in September/October of 2011, was the lead single for an all-new album titled The Next Day. Bowie was back… well… not exactly. This Bowie was the big “Man of Mystery”, his image curated with obsessive caution, who said absolutely nothing to anyone outside of his circle—he bore very little resemblance to the relaxed, approachable David Bowie of a decade earlier.

David Bowie 2013
Bowie salutes his fans, upon the release of THE NEXT DAY in 2013… from a safe distance.

As to the song itself… it took a few listens to ‘get’ it, I think, but over time it has certainly become a genuine classic. Sung in Bowie’s “crooner” voice, with absolute control, dignity and restraint, it looks back wistfully to DB’s Berlin days (1976-78), without seeming like it’s trying in any way to channel the past it reflects upon. You might wonder why he picked this era to focus on. I’d assume it was because this was where he broke the back of his drug problems, and produced some of his best work. I guess he thought about it a lot. And here, it inspires some more great art.

So, today… shoot me for saying this, but—if David Bowie had just put this one song out, nothing else, today I’d be very happy. Because it’s perfect. Back then, I do realise that no one—least of all me—would have been satisfied with a single song. It just wouldn’t have worked, sadly.

Alternatively, an entire album composed of songs like this would be fantastic. Absolutely great. And no one would have wagged a finger at David and accused him of becoming an old fogey. Well, maybe someone would’ve… a stupid someone.

But I doubt David’s notorious ego would have settled for a restrained—dare I say it—age-appropriate collection of songs. Perhaps he was already too vexed by faltering health and being unable to perform live. Perhaps he felt that, in the studio, he was not going to compromise. And so, with The Next Day, we got a peculiar kind of parallel universe Greatest Hits collection, covering almost every genre he’d touched, riddled with melodies and chord progressions lifted from older (better) songs of his… and at least half of the album was sung in a strained, breathless manner that no amount of double-tracking or mixing-down could conceal. Studio trickery and relaxed schedules are one thing, and certainly less of a problem than live shows, but you can only do so much. Some of Bowie’s vocals on The Next Day sound surprisingly strong, but at other times he sounds quite dreadful. His vocal range on this album is a pale shadow compared even to 2003’s Reality, let alone his earlier work.

Perhaps this isn’t much of a mystery. It would appear that Bowie had lung problems. The extent of his health woes will probably—and rightly—remain private, but little things emerge. Tony Oursler, who worked with Bowie on video projects in the 1990s, and who directed the video for “Where Are We Now?” (the lady next to David is Tony’s wife, Jackie), said—in February 2016, just after DB passed—“He had one or two conversations with me about his health, about how he regrets smoking and it really fucked him up and diminished his lung capacity.” (Source.)

That’s why I think an album of songs like “Where Are We Now?” would have been a delight. This is the kind of song he could pull off without obvious strain. He sounds great. Everyone has to allow for age and illness. There’s no shame in that whatsoever.

The Next Day, then, is a thorny issue for me. Running at almost double-album length, I also feel whittling it down to maybe nine songs would have improved it greatly. The album he did after this, while his health was absolutely failing him, is even harder to process—I haven’t listened to it in full since he died, and I don’t want to write at any length about it.

“Where Are We Now?”, as I said, remains a perfect statement. Because of his health problems and his death, I feel his later work is kind of bullet-proof—almost a sacred cow. But this song doesn’t need any excuses, context or baggage. IMO, it’s the final clear-cut classic Bowie track. I love it without reservation.

Had to get the train
From Potsdamer Platz
You never knew that
That I could do that
Just walking the dead

Sitting in the Dschungel
On Nürnberger Strasse
A man lost in time
Near KaDeWe
Just walking the dead

Where are we now?
Where are we now?
The moment you know
You know, you know

Twenty thousand people
Cross Bösebrücke
Fingers are crossed
Just in case
Walking the dead

Where are we now?
Where are we now?
The moment you know
You know, you know

As long as there’s sun
As long as there’s sun
As long as there’s rain
As long as there’s rain
As long as there’s fire
As long as there’s fire
As long as there’s me
As long as there’s you

2 thoughts on “David Bowie: “Where Are We Now?””

  1. Chrissie,

    Thanks for putting together a very candid and thoughtful piece on an incredible talent. Bowie was an artist who stood out from the crowd, much like our mutually admired creator Steve Ditko.

  2. Thanks for the bit of Bowie history. I was more or less oblivious at
    the time, knowing he would always be around. Lovely song. I had a chance to listen to the last two albums again recently.

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