Saturday 21 September 2019

David Bowie - still hunky dory after fifty years

Stoic icon: Bowie remains making consistently good music since he started 50 years ago
Stoic icon: Bowie remains making consistently good music since he started 50 years ago
Eamon Sweeney

Eamon Sweeney

Looking for a stocking filler for the Bowie aficionado in your life so they'll be belting out 'Heroes' after a few sherries on Christmas Day?

Don't worry, it won't involve a sozzled rendition of 'The Laughing Gnome', as David Bowie's latest collection Nothing Has Changed conveniently compiles half a century's output from one of the most enduring game changers in popular culture.

Frequently cited as music's ultimate chameleon, there's still a lot more to the star - who launched a thousand alter egos - than meets than eye. Offering a glimpse behind the masks and copious make-up, Bowie once confessed Ziggy Stardust and all his multifarious guises were just different forms of exorcising madness to preserve his own sanity.

The Bowie the world came to know and love rose to prominence from 1971 to 1973 under the tutelage of Tony DeFries, a manager who wanted to make Bowie a proper star with an aura along the lines of James Dean or Marlon Brando. Defries belonged to the old school of flashy and ostentatious management. His publicity stunts became the stuff of legend, once flying US journalists first class to London to watch a performance of Ziggy Stardust followed by an audience with Bowie still dressed in full-on rock fantasy regalia.

When DeFries calculated that Bowie made approximately £1,000 per hour from performing, he attempted to charge any hacks asking for an interview a similar fee.

Born David Jones in Brixton, London, his family had a complicated history with mental illness. David's half brother Terry Burns broke out of a psychiatric hospital in Surrey in January 1985, walked to the local train station and lay down on the tracks directly in front of an oncoming express train. Bowie stayed away from the funeral as he feared a media circus, but was still inevitably pilloried in the press. The 1983 single 'Jump They Say', which is included on Nothing Has Changed, was written about Terry's death and Bowie's own fears of leaping into the unknown.

Still a masterful media manipulator, conventional public appearances since suffering a heart attack in 2005 are as rare as hen's teeth. Bowie was scheduled to headline the Oxegen music festival in Punchestown that summer, but The Darkness became the eleventh hour headliners by default.

As the years passed by, unsubstantiated rumours grew about his ill-health. Then, completely out of the blue, on Bowie's 66th birthday on January 8, 2013, a new song entitled 'Where Are We Now?' appeared on YouTube and iTunes overnight.

Despite the sudden frenzy surrounding the surprise release and the subsequent album The Next Day, Bowie made no media appearances. Producer Tony Visconti did a little promotion for the album and even accepted one interviewer's suggestion that he was Bowie's "voice on earth". Incidentally, the same illustrious producer and long-term Bowie stalwart turned down the opportunity to work on his breakthrough track 'Space Oddity', considering it "a cheap shot" and "a gimmick to cash in on the moon landings."

When Bowie won a BRIT Award last year, he sent Kate Moss along to dutifully collect his gong as his "representative on earth." In an era of relentless social media chatter, Bowie defines and refines being an enigma.

One of the most entertaining interviews languishing in the YouTube vaults is a wonderfully illuminating Newsnight interview. In it, the famously curmudgeonly host Jeremy Paxman tackles the illustrious rock icon rather than disembowelling a politician for sport. Paxman enquires:

"On a personal level, you don't do drugs anymore and you don't drink? Not even a glass of wine?" "No, it would kill me," Bowie responds. "What do you mean it would kill you?" Paxman retorts.

"I'm an alcoholic, so it would be the kiss of death for me to start drinking again," Bowie answers. "My relationships with my friends and family has been so good for so many years now, I would not do anything to destroy that again."

In the absence of any juicy new anecdotes about Bowie's infamous phase as an androgynous bi-sexual cocaine addict, Nothing Has Changed is an extremely absorbing collection that joins the dots between his later career with a smattering of greatest hits. It actually achieves the considerable feat of offering a comprehensive overview of an artist who is hard to get to grips with, lifting its title from a lyric from the 2002 track 'Sunday'; "It's the beginning of an end, and nothing has changed. Everything has changed.''

"I'm always amazed that people take what I say seriously," Bowie once reflected. "I don't even take what I am seriously."

Take him seriously or not, it is impossible not to be amused by his insight into the creative temperament. "All us dysfunctional people feel it's important for more than three people to know our opinion and that's why we're in this music biz," Bowie once said. "All the painters, all the anything else - it's where all the nut cases go when they haven't been locked up. They go into the arts. Because nobody in their right mind needs to tell hundreds or thousands of people what they believe."

Nothing Has Changed is out now.

WATCH: Video for David Bowie's new single 'Sue (or In A Season of Crime)'  

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