Now 66 years old and still making the world sit up and take notice. inspiring stuff.

Now 66 years old and still making the world sit up and take notice. Inspiring stuff.

I have long been an admirer of David Bowie – singer, composer, artist, art expert, and actor.

Ziggy Stardust* and Aladdin Sane were the soundtrack for my late teens, that irreplaceable, confusing and alarming period when all the world seems to open up to a body and life has infinite possibilities. Bowie’s music – and even more so, his deliberately obscurantist lyrics – walked with me as I made the unsteady and faltering march into manhood.

Here was a man who had the courage to be experimental with language, who – if he could be believed – wrote lines and lines of lyrics and then cut the pages into pieces and lined the lines up at random to see what would happen. If they “spoke” to him in their new jumbled format, that was how they stayed. I never really thought that was what he did – it was all part of his avant-garde myth-making – but I was just dead impressed that anyone would have the courage to say that’s what he did.

Now, after a career spanning more than forty years in the arts, but after a musical hiatus of more than a decade, Bowie has unexpectedly released a new song, ahead of a new album out in March. It is already an internet sensation, and deservedly so. After what his biographer called “a career marked by continual reinvention, musical innovation and striking visual presentation” the dear old lad has done it again. Wrong-footed us all.

The song, ” Where are we now?” is achingly beautiful, mesmerically entrancing, and at one and the same time both awfully sad and strangely uplifting.

It celebrates, ultimately, love. Well, I think it does.

The love of people and places that lives on when times have changed. The type of complete, overwhelming and ultimately unselfish love that draws one human to another not for a brief moment, but for decades. That draws them to the memory of a person, even when they have moved away from our life, or died. Love that transcends, ultimately, life itself. Love that has a purity that is its own justification, and where purpose has no purpose. Love that simply lights up the Universe.

The song topped the UK iTunes chart within hours of being released and also made it to No 1 in sixteen others around the world, remarkable for a piece of music no one even knew was coming.

This is a song that could only be written after one has lived a life, which Bowie certainly has – he has endured expensive legal battles with various collaborators and managers, his art has frequently been misunderstood or derided, he has battled depression and an inability to separate his real life character from his onstage personas, endured severe cocaine addiction, and a heart attack – in short, he is at a stage, now, when one begins to contemplate one’s own mortality and the meandering route one has taken through life’s vicissitudes, sometimes taking the right path, and sometimes the wrong one, and when one has achieved the wisdom, hopefully, that comes with contemplation and the counsel of the years.

Its lyrics are deceptively approachable, at the same time hopelessly impenetrable, and at the end, charmingly simple. There is nothing synthetic in this song, despite the superb production values that have always marked David Bowie’s work, and the fascinating art-house video which accompanies it. (And kudos to the Director, too.)

I hesitate to say that only Bowie could write such a song, because that would be a burbling nonsense. What is certain is that he has certainly written more of them than most people.

“There’s a magical realism to it,” said Bowie’s friend Tony Oursler who directed the video, which also stars his wife, the abstract impressionist artist Jacqueline Humphries.

“People and friendships have gone sideways, planned projects have not gone anywhere and David wanted to reflect on that. It’s a very, very personal journey he is singing about and the song harkens back to that special time. He is a ‘man caught in time’ as he sings in the video, that’s a life-affirming statement.”

James Lingwood, co-director of influential London arts patron Artangel, which has commissioned work by Oursler, said he was surprised as anyone at the sudden comeback.

“Tony and David have collaborated for years and as soon as I saw the video, you can tell it is very much Tony’s work. It’s a fascinating video – both of them seem haunted by their histories, Bowie by using his Berlin background and Tony returning to his signature method. It’s poignant and plaintive the way Bowie undercuts his mythology while mythologizing himself at the same time. It’s wonderful.”

Here is another song in which Bowie achieved the same myth-making and emotional directness. Rock and Roll Suicide was an anthem that clearly meant a lot to Bowie. It finished the Ziggy Stardust album, and as seen here, it was the last song that he ever performed in his career-making Ziggy alter-ego with the Spiders from Mars band. His caterwauling appeal, intended to be understood both within the song and by his audience, that “You’re not alone!” is a unique moment in rock history, and could only have been written and performed by someone who was already well aware of his own mental fragility.

I am including two versions, the live one above and the recorded one below, simply because the one above speaks to how Bowie mesmerised a generation, related to them in a way few artists have before or since, and the second, below, simply because it’s a better production. It’s interesting to compare them.

What’s interesting about the live version are the atmospherics. The howl of anguish from the crowd when he announces that this was it, finally it, this last night at the iconic Hammersmith Odeon in 1973, for Ziggy and the Spiders.

And at the end, his completely unaffected “We love you.” to the crowd as he walked away, into an uncertain future … morphing into what would become Aladdin Sane, and then his move away from Glam Rock altogether into “plastic soul”, minimalism, blue-eyed soul, industrial, adult contemporary, and jungle. Along the way, his image changed as many times as his musical style … but there was always the love. His “We love you” could have been just one more wanker rock legend sucking up to his audience. It isn’t. Watch it.

Then enjoy the magical production quality – just enough stuff happening, not too much – of the album version.

Scrolling through the comments on YouTube for this song, I came across one which I found especially touching. It said, simply, “I wonder how many suicides David Bowie has prevented with this song?”

I wonder, indeed.

I wonder how many people will discover – or re-discover – love, when they hear “Where are we now?”

*Surely one of the most influential albums of all time, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust is – albeit vaguely – the story of a rock and roll character of whom the album purports to tell the life history.

Ziggy is the human manifestation of an alien being who is attempting to present humanity with a message of hope in the last five years of its existence. Ziggy Stardust is the definitive rock star: sexually promiscuous, wild in drug intake and with a message, ultimately, of peace and love; but he is destroyed both by his own excesses, and by the fans he inspired.

The character of Ziggy was inspired by British rock ‘n’ roll singer Vince Taylor whom Bowie met after Taylor had had a breakdown and believed himself to be a cross between a god and an alien; though Taylor was only part of the blueprint for the character, other influences included the Legendary Stardust Cowboy and Kansai Yamamoto, who designed the costumes Bowie wore during the tour.

The Ziggy Stardust name came partly from the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, and partly, as Bowie told Rolling Stone, because Ziggy was “one of the few Christian names I could find beginning with the letter ‘Z'”. He later explained in a 1990 interview that the Ziggy part came from a tailor’s shop called Ziggy’s that he passed on a train, and he liked it because it had “that Iggy [as in Iggy Pop] connotation but it was a tailor’s shop, and I thought, Well, this whole thing is gonna be about clothes, so it was my own little joke calling him Ziggy. So Ziggy Stardust was a real compilation of things.”

  1. paul says:

    Excellent post about one of my all time favourites. Having spent 30 years in the music business from 1972 I have seen many live gigs, some more memorable than others. The Ziggy Stardust concert at Southampton Guildhall was one of the best especially since it was a freebie. I still have the ticket to this day.


  2. Terry M Gresham says:

    Reblogged this on TerryMGresham.


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