On the occasion of his 66th birthday earlier this week, David Bowie did something he hasn’t done in a really long time: he put out some new music. It came in the form of a song called “Where Are We Now?” (from a reported forthcoming album called The Next Day), with a music video directed by artist Tony Oursler. The video itself looks like the documentation of an interactive art installation: there’s a cluttered, static set with a slanted screen at the center of it displaying a slide show of various locales. Sitting in front of the screen are two conjoined teddy bear twins with a hole in the screen where their heads would be, and where people’s faces fit in: specifically Bowie’s face, uncomfortably mouthing the words to his song, and to his right, a silent, patient, female companion, both sort of occupying the spaces flashing by on the screen, while at the same time sitting still on a cluttered counter or shelf of some sort.
It’s an almost comically desolate song, with Bowie croak-singing verses about being in – and doing little more than being in – various places with German names, “walking the dead.” It’s as if he’s gone back to Berlin, the geographic source of his late 70s artistic renaissance – the place associated with what many consider his greatest work (particularly his albums Low, ‘Heroes’ and Lodger), but also the place where he committed his most self-destructive excesses – and, instead of the inspiration he may or may not have been looking for, he’s found an overgrown, little-visited, little-tended cemetery.
David Bowie “Where Are We Now?” (2013)
There’s a sad little joke in the title of the song “Where Are We Now?” Until about 10 years ago, David Bowie was one of the most persistently visible and fruitful rock artists of his generation. For forty years, he churned out album after album, rarely failing to dazzle and/or piss off old fans with each new unveiling. While his visits to the Top 40 were sporadic, Bowie was a pop music omnipresence – not only with his own music, but as an influence on others. He was in a different place every day, but he was also everywhere, every day. There would be no VH-1 “Where Are They Now?” specials about David Bowie.
But there was this: On Tuesday morning, I was listening to the local Triple A format radio station. There’s a feature on their morning show called Worst iPod Ever, where they play a snippet of some golden moldy – in this case, it was Benny Mardones’s “Into the Night” – and ask listeners to call in to say whether the DJs should go ahead and play the whole thing on the air. This particular artist and song was unique. Benny Mardones is a one hit wonder, but his one big song was a radio hit twice over – once during its original release in 1980, and then again, somewhat inexplicably, in 1988.
“Into the Night” wasn’t a song that suddenly had a resurgence due to its appearance on a movie soundtrack (like the Belle Stars’ “Iko Iko” or The Proclaimers’ “500 Miles”). Its second life just sort of happened. But, according to our local DJs, the story of its second life started with an L.A. morning radio show in the 80s and their own “Where Are They Now?” feature, where, in 1988, they asked the question, where’s Benny Mardones now? Shortly thereafter, the station added the then largely-forgotten eight-year-old song to its playlist, and from there, it apparently took off. Again. (A similar thing happened with another great early 80s one hit wonder, the Australian band Moving Pictures, and their song “What About Me?”)
Benny Mardones “Into the Night” (1980)
So there’s a little trivia, and there were a few jokes about how creepy that Benny Mardones song is (“sheeeeee’s just 16 years old,” sings the then-33-year-old Mardones in the song’s opening line), and how creepy its video is and ha ha ha; and then our friendly neighborhood morning radio hosts transition to the fact that, like Benny Mardones (who, it turns out, just turned 66 himself in November), David Bowie has long been absent, but he has a new song and a new video and a new album coming out. And while the male host relayed this news as an interesting factoid and pointed out that they would link to it on their page, etc., the female host sounded both underwhelmed and creeped out by what she had seen and heard, remarking that the 2013-model David Bowie might, in fact, be even creepier than Benny Mardones.
Let’s just set aside how disheartening it was to hear the careers of David Bowie and Benny Mardones discussed in terms of what they have in common. I still hadn’t seen the video for “Where Are We Now?” at this point, but it occurred to me that David Bowie was never not creepy on some level. That was always part of the fun. Some of my favorite David Bowie moments are his creepiest. I love the way, for instance, in a song that dates back to his Berlin period (though he wouldn’t record it himself until 1983), he murderously croons to his little China Girl “you shouldn’t mess with me, I’ll ruin everything you are,” thereby turning the expression of a physical longing into the threat of cultural imperialism: “I’ll give you television!” That a new David Bowie video would be creepy is almost prerequisite.
David Bowie “China Girl” (1983)
But I didn’t find “Where Are We Now?”, song or video, creepy. I found it small and barren. It made me think about what being 66 must feel like to David Bowie. I mean, it couldn’t have been a coincidence the song was released on his birthday, right? It’s a song that very much speaks to aging and mortality. And while 66 isn’t ancient, it is about the traditional age of retirement in most professions (and long past the age of relevance for most rock stars). 66 is like 18 in reverse. It’s both a beginning and an end, but at 18, the future looms larger than the past, and at 66 the past looms larger than the future. That’s certainly true of regular people, but when you’ve had the lasting fame, the lasting artistic achievement that David Bowie’s had, the past looms exponentially larger – it avalanches over decades and generations, dwarfing the present in a way that, I imagine, might subsume the person trying to live in that present.
Ziggy Stardust was a good album in 1973. It was a great album in 1983. By the 90s, it was well-regarded as a classic, but Bowie was long over it and ready to move on – sorta. In 1990, as he was setting out on his Sound + Vision tour, he made a promise that no rock star can really keep (and which Bowie didn’t) – that it would be the last time he played his classics live. This was his “greatest hits” tour. It coincided with the release of a 4-disc retrospective, and with an ambitious CD reissue campaign by Rykodisc Records, one of the first-ever big remaster campaigns of a catalogue that had already been released on CD. This was one of the first times any artist would implore his fan base to go out and re-buy an album they already owned on CD. And in the last 20-odd years, David Bowie has never stopped asking us to re-buy his albums in ever-expanding iterations (at ever-inflating price-points), to the point nearly 10 years ago where he essentially stopped asking us to buy (for the first time) his new music – he simply stopped releasing new music.
I own David Bowie’s last two studio albums Reality and Heathen (along with every other studio album he’s released since 1969). I recall those last two records as being fine, but I don’t ever really get the urge to listen to them. In my mind, their the audio equivalent of a bag of presumably stale pretzels that’s been sitting in the back of the pantry. Instead, I’m always going back to Let’s Dance and Scary Monsters and Hunky Dory. Ziggy Stardust never got and will never get old, but the man who created him will and is, and this new song feels like that realization. “The moment you know you know you know…”