The Sunday Times - August 31, 2003
Growing old gracefully
Rock musicians can go on for ever, provided they know how to grow old gracefully. On his new album, Reality, Bowie has found the formula, says Mark Edwards
Thirty years ago, David Bowie was the biggest rock star in the country. Having risen to fame on the back of the extraordinary Ziggy Stardust album, he was poised to unleash its equally amazing follow-up, Aladdin Sane. When that album was released, in April 1973, it went straight to No1 and joined four other Bowie albums in the Top 40 - a level of chart- domination previously managed only by Elvis, and never equalled since.
Just before the album was released, Bowie chose to unveil his latest single, Drive-In Saturday, on the talk show Russell Harty Plus. His appearance on the show is fascinating for several reasons. First, he arrived wearing an outfit that out-glammed anything he had previously worn: shaven eyebrows, a jacket with lapels that must have been a foot wide, stockings - the whole shebang topped off with a single earring of Bet Lynchian dimensions. (This, children, was a time when men didn' t ever, ever, ever wear earrings.) Then there was the unsettling spectacle of watching Harty - then an in-the-closet gay - playing the role of the shocked straight bloke. And finally there was Bowie's choice of songs. Obviously he played the new single. But then, instead of playing another crowd-pleaser from the album - Jean Genie, perhaps - he sang a Jacques Brel number called My Death.
Now, you could argue that My Death is really a love song - the gist of it being that the singer has found the one woman who can keep his mind away from thoughts of his death. But still, the hordes of young Bowie fans who tuned in were doubtless taken aback by lines like: "My death waits like a Bible truth at the funeral of my youth. Weep loud for that and the passing time. My death waits like a witch at night." This didn't seem very rock'n'roll.
Three decades later, on his forthcoming album Reality, Bowie refers back to that old Brel tune. On the title track of the album - due out on September 15 - he sings, "now my death is more than just a sad song". Bowie has always loved to refer back to old songs, but this is no throwaway line. The process of ageing and, yes, impending death are central themes that run through many of the songs on the new record. When he sings, on another track from Reality, "I'm never going to get old", it's not the defiant cry of youth, it's the desperate self-delusion of somebody who knows the process has already begun. Bowie is 56, and on Reality it shows.
Sounds like a put-down, doesn't it? What am I saying? That he's past it? That his album sounds tired and old? In fact, quite the opposite: by acknowledging - and, if you like, by acting - his age, Bowie is currently creating the best music he's made in 20 years. But to talk of age and death is to break rock's great taboo, "Hope I die before I get old". Pete Townshend's original, brilliantly articulated statement served as a definition of what rock music was about for many decades. It was a young person's music, a key part of youth culture, and if you were old, you wouldn't like it and you certainly wouldn't play it.
In defining the culture as it stood at the time, Townshend also created an albatross around the neck of several generations of musicians, who - with a few self-destructive exceptions - didn't actually want to die at all. The idea that rock is a young man's game is so entrenched that even today, the Rolling Stones are still unable to get through an interview without being asked if they aren't too old for all this malarkey, despite the fact that they first faced - and disproved - this accusation some quarter of a century ago.
"People want to pull the rug out from under you," Keith Richards told Rolling Stone last year. "They're bald and fat and can't move for shit. It's pure physical envy - that we shouldn't be here. ‘How dare they defy logic.'"
Richards may have a point. It must have been galling enough for young men to watch their girlfriends swooning over Mick Jagger in the early 1960s; the fact that he's still primping and preening (when he hasn't got flu), now that he's in his early sixties, probably does provoke some envy. But Richards was closer to the truth when he added: "We're fighting people's misconceptions about what rock'n'roll is supposed to be."
We thought rock was youth culture because it was originally played by young people for young people, and inevitably they wrote about the concerns of young people. But there's no fundamental law that says it has to be sung by or listened to by young people. The fact that rock music arrived at the same time as the concept of the teenager has led us to believe they are inextricably linked. But they're not.
The artists were as confused by this as we were. Most of the key players, shortly after hitting their thirties, also hit writer's block or a creative decline. Many of those who ruled the 1960s or 1970s have been wandering around in the creative doldrums for two or three decades now, realising they can't write, "Well, she was just 17, you know what I mean..." any more, but unsure what to write instead. Bowie's new album hints at an answer. It provides a template for rock musicians on how to grow old gracefully - by simply acknowledging that you are indeed growing old.
Bowie's career path has followed a similar - if more exaggerated - pattern to that of many of his 1960s predecessors and 1970s peers. For 10 years from 1971 to 1981, Bowie rarely put a foot wrong. From the winning pop of Hunky Dory to the sonic magic of Ashes to Ashes, he travelled through a golden creative patch that lasted longer than anyone else's in rock. He was consistently on the top of his game even longer than John Lennon, Paul McCartney or Bob Dylan. He managed the tricky task of being both the most glamorous star, and also the most critically acclaimed figure. The impact of this period was underlined when NME - usually the bible of this year's latest trend - named him the most influential artist of all time. Then, following his biggest commercial success of all, the Let's Dance album, a steep decline set in. A man who had trod so surely for 10 years made misstep after misstep for the next 20. Certainly, he could still write great songs - nothing wrong with Absolute Beginners or Little Wonder - but he struggled to make an entirely successful album, and you could no longer argue that his work mattered as it had once done.
In the 1970s, Bowie had culturally raised a generation in the way the Beatles had a decade before. It was Bowie who steered his fans towards the Velvet Underground; Iggy Pop, Jean Genet and William Boroughs; Aleister Crowley and the kabbalah. Bowie made pop fans listen to soul, ambient and Krautrock. And Bowie introduced them to postmodernism and irony before we knew the words. Bowie understood that young people look to their pop idols for an explanation of the world and their place in it, and he gave his fans both an understanding of how to create themselves and a shoulder to cry on ("I've had my share," he sang, "I'll help you with the pain.") But then we grew up. We didn't need him to help us. And anyway, he seemed much less interesting. So the relationship kind of fizzled out.
Bowie's renaissance began in 2001 when he demo'ed a new song he'd written called Afraid. At the time he was working on the idea of re-recording some of the songs he'd written in the 1960s, before his breakthrough with Space Oddity. But Afraid was such a strong song that he shelved that idea and began thinking about making a new album. Why was Afraid so good? Because Bowie did what he sang about all those years ago in Changes: "I turned myself to face me.
" His lyrics are always enigmatic, often hiding meanings in characters and metaphors. But it's pretty clear that, in Afraid, Bowie was remembering the awesome powers he had in the 1970s - "What made my life so wonderful? ... I used to wake up the ocean ... I used to walk on clouds" - and finally confronting the fact that he couldn't even seem to wake up a small pond these days. "And how," you can imagine a therapist asking him, "does that make you feel?" The answer was in the title of the song: afraid.
The irony was that in accepting the loss of his god-like powers, he began to regain them. A spurt of writing turned into last year's Heathen album, his most critically and commercially successful record in a long time. There were other factors in Bowie's return to form (as Robert Sandall notes on the previous page, getting dropped can focus the mind wonderfully, and the return of his old sparring partner Tony Visconti was important), but mainly, instead of searching around for a way of seeming relevant, as he had done in the 1990s, Bowie wrote about his very lack of relevance. He did what no doubt his English teacher had told him back in the 1950s: he wrote about what he knew. He wrote about getting older, about not knowing how he fitted in any more, about impending death, and the realisation that, despite his extra-ordinary life, he may not have gained very much knowledge.
"All things must pass," he sang on the title track, quoting George Harrison. The theme of the album is, as Bowie noted in interviews at the time, "the nagging shadow of one's finite status on the planet". This is also the theme of Reality. Still with Visconti co-producing, and still sonically recalling the pair's earlier collaborations - notably Lodger and Scary Monsters - Reality proves that Heathen was no fluke. Bowie's back. And he may be as important a companion to his now middle-aged fans as he was when they were growing up together, because just as he helped a generation through their bewildering teenage years, he now looks ready to help them through their midlife crises.
They may be able to find some comfort and solace not only in the songs on Heathen and Reality, but also in the very shape of his career. If even the most important pop artist of his age hit a point in his life when he didn't know what he was doing or why he was doing it, then surely the rest of us can hardly be blamed if we do the same.
Not that Bowie is offering any easy answers. Perhaps the most striking song on Reality is the fatalistic Bring Me the Disco King. "Soon there'll be nothing left of me," he sings. The line recalls Dylan's "It's not dark yet, but it's getting there", from 1997's Time Out of Mind. Like Heathen and Reality, this was an album hailed as a return to form by an artist who had once meant so much, but had also spent years wandering aimlessly.And guess what the theme of Time Out of Mind is? Uh-huh - ageing and impending death.
Dylan and Bowie have rarely seemed to have much in common. But right now they're treading a similar path, as is another singer you wouldn't normally associate with Bowie: Johnny Cash. Cash's last four albums are arguably the most powerful body of work produced by anyone of any age in the past decade. And yes, they're about age and death.
Strangely, none of these albums is depressing. In fact, they're all rather uplifting. And they provide a clear lesson for musicians worrying about getting old. Stop dyeing your hair, forget the face-lifts and never mind the duets with youngsters: just start singing about what's really going on in your life. Listening to stars sing about getting old isn't schadenfreude. It's empathy. And from people with whom, we believed, we no longer had anything in common. The lives of these heroes lose focus just as ours do. And they find focus again simply by confronting the nasty realities of age, the loss of their dreams, waning powers, death. As Bowie sings on Reality, "life really sags". Yours too, huh, Dave? I'm not suggesting there's much more than empathy there, though. Not knowledge. Not insight. Neither Dylan nor Bowie claims to have learnt anything from getting older.
As Dylan said about his near-fatal heart infection: "It was like I learnt nothing. I wish I could say I... got highly educated in something or had some revelations about anything. But I can't say that any of that happened." Or, as Bowie put it in a recent interview: "We create so many circles on this straight line we're told we're travelling. The truth is, of course, that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time." It's not a very positive thought. But Reality is rather a good album.
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