From glam to neo-soul to his mysterious final album, David Bowie remained one step ahead throughout a prophetic career that pushed sexual and social boundaries. Alexis Petridis salutes a brilliant enigma.
When David Bowie’s final album, Blackstar, was released on 8 January, a great deal of energy was expended trying to unpick the lyrics. As on its predecessor, 2013’s The Next Day, or any number of classic Bowie albums from Hunky Dory to Station to Station, they were frequently dense and allusive: much attention was focused on the title track, which one of Blackstar’s backing musicians, saxophonist Donny McCaslin, claimed was about the rise of Isis, a suggestion Bowie’s spokesperson subsequently denied. Now, with the knowledge that Bowie was terminally ill during its making, the most striking thing about the album is how elegiac it frequently sounds. “If I never see the English evergreens I’m running to, it’s nothing to me,” he sang on Dollar Days. “Saying no, but meaning yes, this is all I ever meant, that’s the message that I sent,” ran the closing I Can’t Give Everything Away. Most arresting of all is Lazarus: “Look at me, I’m in heaven. I’ve got scars that can’t be seen, I’ve got drama can’t be stolen; everybody knows me now.”
Most people assumed that Lazarus was written from the viewpoint of Thomas Newton, the alien Bowie portrayed in Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth: it was the title track of an off-Broadway musical based on the 1976 film. Now it feels suspiciously like Bowie writing his own epitaph, asserting his own fame, vast artistic importance and inimitability – for decades, other artists tried to copy David Bowie, but none of them were really anything like him – while wryly pointing out that, after nearly 50 years in the spotlight, he’d somehow managed to retain a sense of mystery.
Dozens of books have been written about him, some of them hugely illuminating, but something unknowable lurked at the centre. Almost from the start, Bowie’s career raised questions to which a definitive answer seemed elusive. If he was, as he loudly claimed in 1971, gay, then what was the deal with the very visible wife and the son he’d just written a touching little song about? If he was, as he dramatically announced from the stage of the Hammersmith Odeon in July 1973, retiring – either from music, or from live performance, or from the character of Ziggy Stardust – then what was he doing back onstage in London three months later, belting out The Jean Genie in full Ziggy drag? How does anyone in the state Bowie was, by all accounts, in by 1975 – ravaged by cocaine to the point where he seemed to have genuinely gone insane; paranoid and hallucinating – make an album like Station to Station: not a messily compelling document of a mind unravelling, like the solo albums of his great idol Syd Barrett, but a work of precision and focus and exquisitely controlled power that’s arguably his best? In a world of cameraphones and social media, how could anyone as famous as Bowie disappear from public view as completely as he seemed to between 2008 and 2013: moreover, how could anyone as famous as Bowie record a comeback album in the middle of Manhattan without anyone noticing or leaking details to the media? How does anyone stage-manage their own death as dramatically as Bowie appears to have done: releasing their most acclaimed album in decades, filled with strange, enigmatic songs whose meaning suddenly became apparent when their author dies two days later?
It was a dramatic end to a career that began inauspiciously. Bowie spent the 60s trying to fit in with prevalent trends, something to which he was uniquely ill-suited: he didn’t make for a terribly convincing blues-influenced rock’n’roller, or hippy troubadour, or MOR singer-songwriter, just as two decades later, he wouldn’t make for a terribly convincing mainstream stadium-rock star, trapped in what he subsequently called “the netherworld of commercial acceptance”.
Tellingly, the first truly great song he wrote focused on the outsider: recorded at the height of Swinging London, 1966’s The London Boys offered up the era’s gloomy flipside, a monochrome drama of poverty, amphetamine psychosis, grimy bedsits and cafes. Even when he finally had a hit, with 1969’s Space Oddity, his success seemed far from assured. For all the song’s eerie brilliance, the public clearly thought of it as a novelty record, capitalising on the moon landings: they declined to buy its follow-up, The Prettiest Star, or the accompanying eponymous album. All along, however, Bowie was picking up ideas he would subsequently pull into focus. His then-manager Ken Pitt introduced him to the Velvet Underground, whose distortion, avant-garde inclinations and transgressive subject matter would reverberate throughout Bowie’s career: you can hear echoes of their tumultuous sound in everything from the feedback-laden glam rock of 1973’s Aladdin Sane to the wilfully synthetic racket he conjured up on 1977’s Heroes to the sonic commotion of Blackstar’s ’Tis a Pity She Was a Whore. He tried to incorporate what he’d learned studying mime under Lindsay Kemp into his stage act, which kicked off a fruitful obsession with drawing ideas from other areas of the arts – films, theatre, literature, fashion – into rock music.
No matter how weird and alien you felt, you couldn’t be as weird and alien as Bowie and his bandmates.
As the 70s dawned, he found the perfect musical foil in guitarist Mick Ronson and his songwriting got better and better – 1971’s Hunky Dory was as rich and brilliant a collection of songs as he ever wrote – but almost no one noticed. The closest Hunky Dory came to commercial success was when Oh! You Pretty Things made No 12, courtesy of a jaunty, prim cover version by Peter Noone – toothsome former frontman of the 60s least-threatening superstars, Herman’s Hermits – which was clearly some distance from the seismic rupture Bowie had predicted on the album’s opening track Changes: “Look out, you rock’n’rollers!”
How he made them notice was via one of the most audacious gambles in rock history. Infatuated with the Velvet Underground’s world of drag queens and sneering, bitchy putdowns, Bowie seemed to realise that, for all the generation-gap-rendering shocks that British rock music had delivered over the preceding decade, it had never really dared touch on the subject of homosexuality. Beyond the thanks-but-no-thanks saga of the Kinks’ Lola, there were only glancing references, so oblique as to be the stuff of rumour rather than fact: See My Friend, also by the Kinks, the Beatles’ You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away, Donovan’s To Try for the Sun. Tellingly, the journalist to whom he came out as bisexual, Michael Watts, didn’t seem to have been terribly convinced: “Mmmmmm,” he responded doubtfully, despite the fact that Bowie had already posed on the cover of 1970’s The Man Who Sold the World wearing “a man’s dress”, and larded the lyrics of The Width of a Circle and Queen Bitch with intimations of homosexual encounters.
It didn’t matter. The interview drew enough attention that the launch of his next album and its accompanying character, Ziggy Stardust – the latter debuted a fortnight later in the unpromising environs of the Toby Jug pub in Tolworth – felt like an event. The momentum was electrified further by his appearance on Top of the Pops in July 1972, arguably the most celebrated three minutes of music television ever broadcast in the UK. Listen to a bootleg of Bowie performing live in Aylesbury the preceding year and he sounds nervous and uncertain; on Top of the Pops, he seemed imperious. There’s a touch of Lord Kitchener about the moment Bowie pointed down the camera as he sang the line: “I had to phone someone so I picked on you.” He looks like a man recruiting an army of teenage misfits. No matter how weird and alien you felt, you couldn’t be as weird and alien as Bowie and his bandmates looked: “You’re not alone, give me your hands, you’re wonderful,” he sang on the accompanying album.
It helped that Ziggy Stardust was the right record for the moment. The standard line is that glam rock represented a diversion from the misery of early-70s life, a glittery space-age dreamworld in which you could hide from rising unemployment, industrial unrest and terrorism. But The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars is riven with dread and horror, mired in what the journalist Francis Wheen later called “the collective nervous breakdown” of the 1970s. Even at its most escapist, it underlined what you might be escaping from: “Tony went to fight in Belfast, Rudi stayed at home to starve,” opened the rock’n’roll fantasy of Star. As time wore on and Bowie became an ever-more influential and commanding figure – capable of reactivating other’s careers at a stroke – his music got more dense and apocalyptic. By the time of 1974’s Diamond Dogs, it sounded so decadent and diseased and sensational that it was hard to work out where Bowie could possibly go next.
As it turned out, he was just getting started on a series of musical shifts so brilliantly executed they seemed to drag the rest of pop music along in their wake. If his early 70s albums informed punk – a genre heavily staffed by kids who’d been galvanised by his 1972 Top of the Pops appearance – then the “plastic soul” and electronic experiments of his late 70s albums presaged a vast quantity of what happened after punk. Quite aside from his willingness to reinvent himself so dramatically, it seems a miracle his fans kept up – “it might as well have been a completely different artist”, said one fan who witnessed both the glammy, theatrical early dates and the funk-inspired later shows of the 1974 tour that finally made him a star in America – what was remarkable was how thoroughly Bowie could impose himself on different genres, how he could take other people’s ideas and twist them until they seemed entirely his own. 1975’s Young Americans was recorded at Sigma Sound, home of the luscious string-laden soul released on Philadelphia International, but it didn’t sound like a Philly soul record. Recorded with Brian Eno, 1977’s Low and Heroes were clearly in thrall to the music of German experimentalists Kraftwerk and Neu!, but they didn’t sound much like Kraftwerk or Neu!. They sounded like David Bowie, even though they sounded nothing like David Bowie had recorded before.
There was a lovely circularity about the release of 1980’s Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) and its accompanying No 1 single, Ashes to Ashes, at the height of the New Romantic movement he’d almost singlehandedly inspired: public confirmation that Bowie was the most important and influential artist since the Beatles. But the 80s were to prove a more problematic decade than that suggested. His career in the 70s had been scarred by bad business deals: once he was out of a contract with Tony DeFries that entitled his former manager to 16% of his earnings until 1982, Bowie seemed determined to make money. He succeeded – 1983’s Serious Moonlight tour sold 2.6m tickets – but, as he later admitted, his artistry suffered. Let’s Dance – released in 1983, and his biggest hit album with 7m sales – had its moments. The following year’s Tonight, however, did not.
By the decade’s end, Bowie seemed aware that something had gone awry. He tried to kickstart his muse: by forming a heavy rock band, Tin Machine; by announcing that he would no longer play old material in concert; by reconnecting with collaborators who’d spurred him on in the past, including Brian Eno and Mick Ronson; by dabbling in the voguish dance genre of drum’n’bass. He occasionally made brilliant records – not least 1995’s impenetrable but rewarding Outside – but nothing matched what he’d achieved in the 70s. Indeed, by the mid-90s, his real innovations seemed to be happening away from the recording studio: he released a download-only single in 1996, nine years before iTunes. He made himself available to fans on the messageboard of his website, foreshadowing the 360-degree connectivity that artists are expected to indulge in in the age of Twitter and Facebook, and which he himself shunned completely in the years before his death.
By the early noughties, he seemed to be settling into the life of a heritage rock star: making well-received albums that knowingly referenced his past, playing classic albums in their entirety, seeming to tacitly acknowledge both the extent of his influence and that his greatest achievements were behind him. It’s a pragmatic approach that’s served everyone from Paul McCartney to Iggy Pop well, but it sat uneasily with Bowie. His music had never wallowed in nostalgia. It had been iconoclastic and antagonistic towards the past (“my brother’s at home with his Beatles and his Stones … what a drag”, he’d written on 1972’s All the Young Dudes): it was about the present, or better still, the future. Although his withdrawal into semi-retirement after 2003’s Reality was precipitated by emergency surgery on a blocked artery, it made a strange kind of sense.
Most observers assumed it was permanent. Instead, he suddenly reappeared in 2013 with Where Are We Now?. The song just appeared on the internet on his 66th birthday, without advance promotion or fanfare, its author declining to give interviews: in its own way, as audacious a move as the interview he gave the Melody Maker in 1972. The subsequent album, The Next Day, wasn’t a million miles removed from the albums he’d been making before his sabbatical – solid songwriting, lots of references to Bowie’s past, but its follow-up was something else entirely. On release, Blackstar sounded remarkably like the kind of confident, decisive break with his past Bowie kept turning out at the height of his powers: the thrillingly exploratory jazz-influenced sound had as little to do with the music on The Next Day as the soul of Young Americans had with the glam albums that preceded it. It sounded like a new beginning, but it was the exact opposite: it was a farewell, a puzzle, filled with clues no one picked up on, that would suddenly be solved by his death. David Bowie went out the way he spent most of his career: unknowable, one step ahead of everyone else.