Brendan O'Connor: Bowie is back, and in the coolest of all possible moves
After a decade of silence, the last true superstar has quietly put a new song out there
Published 13/01/2013 | 05:00
There isn't much on the news these days that would wake you up with a smile. But middle-aged men who should know better all around the world woke up to delight on Tuesday morning. Just when we had nearly given up, after a 10-year silence, Bowie was back.
And the song almost didn't matter. What was so beautiful about it, what would nearly move you to tears of joy and gratitude, was how cool it all was, how defiantly old school, as befits the last superstar.
Given that David Bowie was one of the first rock stars to embrace the internet, and given that, unlike most other people, he actually managed to make money out of it, and given that Bowie was always an innovator who wrote the future and lived in it before anyone else even knew what the future was, one would have expected a new Bowie album to have been well flagged online.
There should have been webcams in the studio, we should have been voting on the track-listing, even remixing it on our own computers before it came out. Interactivity, connectedness, futurism. But then again, that's how everyone else does it now. The mystique is gone. The walls have been broken down. We are all on Twitter terms with our idols now.
So Bowie didn't do that.
Nothing is a surprise anymore in music. And that was how Bowie so beautifully innovated again. In a world of constant connection, where information wants to be free, the last true superstar managed to record an album in New York City without a sinner knowing about it. And when he did use the technology, he just used it to put the song out there, to just drop it on iTunes at 5am, a tweet from him and a tweet from his son to point people to it. And it wasn't just a song – an album is coming, though there will apparently be no tour and no interviews. As always, Bowie is doing things on his terms.
If the whole statement of how it was done wasn't enough in itself, it helps that the song, Where Are We Now?, is beautiful and sad. Though admittedly Bowie fans are coming half way to meet it because there is no way we are going to throw this back in his face. Or he might disappear again.
On first listen Where Are We Now? seems to meander a bit and you imagine it could have been one of the filler tracks off any of the last few Bowie albums: Hours, Heathen or Reality.
But the more you listen the more Where Are We Now? reveals of beauty and melancholy. No one does it like this anymore. And is there anything more moving than a man looking back and reflecting on the passage of time? And the kicker is that those times he looks back on, his times in Berlin in the mid-to- late Seventies, were times that seemed so modern and confused back then.
They were times, too, when Bowie himself was the epitome of post-modern alienation. And they look to us now like times of such innocence, safety and certainty compared to the world we live in today. Even Bowie himself, for all his dystopian visions of futureshock, couldn't have predicted what would happen to him or us in the next 40 years. It is almost quaint and cuddly to look back on his years as the Thin White Duke now, even though he was a cocaine-ravaged monster at the time, dabbling in the occult. But where are we now indeed. The closest we have to Bowie now is ersatz figures like Lady Gaga, and the future is very different, but in ways, way wilder, than anyone knew.
And whatever about some guy reflecting on his glory days on the football team, what is it like to be 66 when you were once David Bowie? It's like a guy reflecting on another life, on another person, but a person that was him.
Of course it might all mean nothing. Bowie often favoured writing lyrics by just stringing together random phrases and words. But that's part of the beauty. He's not explaining anything. He just dropped it out there and said, "Hello. I'm still here. Where are we now?" Ha ha.
And you can't separate the song from the circumstances, from the audacious statement, from the wilful rejection of how music works now. The 10 years of silence is part of the artistic statement. You can't listen to Where Are We Now? without listening to the 10 years of silence that is the intro to the song. In fact, you wouldn't put it past Bowie to have deliberately stepped back for a while, just to set the scene for the revival.
That 10 years has been filled with speculation. Some people quite simply thought he had retired. We were told he was raising his daughter, perhaps overcompensating for not being there for his first son Zowie/Joe.
Others reckoned he was too ill to work. Remember that the reason for the "retirement" originally was a heart attack during the tour for Reality, his last album. When he hadn't been seen for a while, some people said it was simply that he had got fat and his vanity wouldn't allow him to be seen. Someone who has a passing acquaintance with him actually told me that in fairly bitchy tones.
Paul Trynka, who released a Bowie biography last year, and who implied a kind of inside track, said that his head told him Bowie had retired, and that to come back he would need something seismic. In fairness the earth moved a little for lots of us last Tuesday morning.
I always believed he'd be back. I've always thought you don't just stop being David Bowie. You don't retire at 56 when you are him. No artist does. It is often forgotten that outside of a few periods of commercial success – Space Oddity (a hit on its second release at a time when, if I'm not mistaken, Bowie was about to give up singing after years plugging away in different incarnations from hippy to mod), Ziggy Stardust and then Let's Dance – David Bowie was never really a hugely commercial artist. And he was largely happy that way.
He was an experimental cult artist more interested in expressing himself than being Number 1. How else would you explain that he persev-ered with his rock band, the reviled Tin Machine? Bowie is a true artist in that he made music because on some level he needed to. And that never goes away.
Of course we are greedy. Even people who don't like the song and who have no hope for the album are thinking at least there might be a tour. Unfortunately that might be too obvious. Bowie is not going to hawk himself around the enormodomes doing the greatest hits like the Stones.
As much as we might all want to see it, you imagine he would think it beneath him at this stage. Maybe he'll play the album live for recording by the BBC in front of a select crowd. Maybe there'll even be a few intimate surprise gigs.
Whatever happens next, we can only be sure of one thing. It will be cool and dignified in a way that befits the last superstar. And it will be totally unlike anything that anyone else would do.
Why? Because, as he once said himself, "I'm David Bowie, and you're not."