Read it on The GROUND Magazine
“There was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy. They say he wandered very far, very far, over land and sea. A little shy, and sad of eye, but very wise was he. And then one day, one magical day, he passed my way, and while we spoke of many things, fools and kings, this he said to me…” Back in 2001 David Bowie together with Massive Attack rearranged Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy” for the soundtrack of Moulin Rouge. After a long ten years break from his latest studio album “Reality”, these words sound like Bowie’s autobiography in the light of “The Next Day”.
Ziggy Stardust, The Thin White Duke, the Berlin Bowie, the New Romantic Bowie, the Neoclassic Bowie, in over forty years, there is no strange land or sea for David Robert Jones. He has seen it all through his multiple incarnations and eclectic personality managing to create a manifesto for generations to come out of music and experimentations with his image. He is the maker of his own iconic persona and brought to life different characters that sometimes had to be killed, as it happened with Ziggy live on stage during a concert in London on July the 3rd 1973, and sometimes had to be reinvented.
Always affected by this sort of multiple personality disorder, fashion and music wise, there may be no records for a phenomena like this before him, but the list of artists undoubtedly inspired by him is endless for all of his personifications “live forever”, quoting his latest single “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”.
When he heard Elvis’ “Tutti Frutti” he said he heard God, and let’s not forget that this is the same person whose fascination with the bizarre led him to study mime at Sadler’s Wells. Dancer Lindsay Kemp once said “His day-to-day life was the most theatrical thing I had ever seen, ever. It was everything I thought Bohemia probably was. I joined the circus.”
David Bowie’s career, and the one of his characters, became a true Commedia Dell’Arte made of masks, ambiguity, and that mastery of versatility that allowed us to experience music and its theatrical elements as one. Ch- ch- ch- changes that transformed the way of making and conceiving rock and pop music forever.
It would be interesting to know how many people keep in their wardrobes a T-shirt with Bowie’s “Aladdin Sane” cover on it, yes the one with the thunder, but long-time producer since 1969 “Space Oddity” and Bowie’s recently named “voice on earth” Tony Visconti has something to share about this. He was wandering around New York City listening to the brand new recorded material in his headphones and as he spotted people wearing a Bowie’s T-Shirt he thought “Boy, if you only knew what I’m listening to at the moment.” Everyone will remember where they were when “Where Are We Now?” was released on his sixty-sixth birthday, a breaking news that shadowed for once Elvis’ birthday, born on the same day as Bowie, the eight of January. In the video his face, projected on a doll and reminding The Earthling Tour, comes back to us singing the introspective and romantic first single that recollects memories from his 76-79 Berlin era. Potzdamer Platz, Nurnberger Strasse, the “dschungel” / jungle, of KaDaWe Mall, the song breathes his life experiences in the German capital; it is classy, poetic and the best choice to break such a long silence. There is no reinvention, no struggle to fit into the music trends of the moment, it is bare-Bowie and he’s back to give us a pure rock and roll lesson. He wouldn’t bother otherwise.
Title-track “The Next Day” opens the album and it is simply addictive, sinful, and a well deserved auto-celebration, “Here I am, not quite dying”. There is a sense of profane running through the guitars and the string arrangement along the lyrics “Of his women dressed as men for the pleasure of that priest” and even though Bowie, through Visconti, said “we are not touring”, this would have to be the song to open the show. It feels just like John Lennon once described him “great rock and roll with lipstick on”. “Dirty Boys” follows next with the same atmosphere thanks to Steve Elson’s baritone sax narrating this dirty and dangerous story that smells of whiskey and gunpowder. Bowie gets personal and opens up about celebrity lifestyle in “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”, a song whose video, directed by Floria Sigismondi, is a statement on how fame sucks you up like a vampire even when you try to lead a normal life like Bowie, who is seen shopping at a grocery store with his on video wife played by none other than Tilda Swinton.
“Stars are never sleeping, dead ones and the living” he sings as an androgynous celebrity couple, perfectly played by models Andrej Pejic and Saskia De Brauw, haunt and manipulate his suburban life. Topical controversial aspects of his career are explored like sexual orientation, ambiguity, loss of sanity and identity, “On stage I achieve emotions, off stage I am a robot” Ziggy Stardust once said, and being a celebrity is like being an alien. Few people in the world know this feeling like him; the myth and hysteria following your every move for decades even when you are not in the spotlight. He certainly deserves a break from this but at the same it is what he was feeding off from and “They are the stars, they are dying for you, but I hope they live forever” is a twisted yet profoundly truth reminder.
Bowie’s retrospective on “The Next Day” goes through the rock, soul, and funk of his early albums, to the pop-rock of “Hunky Dory”. “Valentine’s Day” is a story about a high school shooter with a retro-pop-acoustic approach; “Love Is Lost” has a haunting keyboard that goes together with Bowie’s vocals singing “oh what have you done?” The psychedelic “If You Can See Me”, is inspired by his reading of medieval English history and the up-tempo Motown beats of “Dancing Out Of Space” keeps the pace steady but unchanging until “How The Grass Grow?”. The military answer to this question would be “Blood! Blood! Blood”, and maybe he is the same soldier of the story about the Second World War in the jazzy and swirly “I’d Rather Be High”? Despite the answer this track has a phenomenal and catchy intro and outro à la “Changes” and contains a motif of The Shadow’s “Apache”. Bowie’s interpretation becomes so theatrical towards the end “There will be no tomorrow, then you sigh in your sleep and meaning returns with the day” before storming out again to confirm that this comeback album is “TO BE PLAYED AT MAXIMUM VOLUME.” like the instructions on the rear cover of the original Ziggy Stardust vinyl.
The curtain’s call is coming soon and towards the end he becomes abstract like his 1977 “Low”, described by Philip Glass “a work of genius”, and minimal like the other two albums that make up the Berlin triptych, “Lodger” and “Heroes” acclaimed as Bowie’s “Sergeant Pepper”. In “You Feel So Lonely You Could Die” titled after a verse of Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” he takes the acoustic guitar and its lyricism is a standout. His melodramatic interpretation is staggering with each “die-die-die” he sings and it gives the album a different vibe and a crescendo that brings the closing number “Heat” to a dimension of its own. We finally get to hear Bowie’s deep and sonorous voice in this theatrical monologue about a prison along moaning violins and a solemn guitar. I am not sure if “the songs of dust” and “the world would end” refer to the 5 years that Ziggy had before the end of the world as I am not sure if “my father ran the prison” relates to his dad who introduced him to the power of music, something that after 40 years became his world, his prison, his struggle with cocaine and the stage where he lost and found himself so many times. “And I tell myself, I don’t know who I am”, would he like to change the past or is he finally coming to terms with what he created? I think that singing about being the seer and the liar means acknowledging his own plots as a storyteller, a man, a hero if you wish. And maybe, you can’t get any more personal than that, especially with Bowie.
When shown the album cover, an adaptation of 1977 album “Heroes” obscured by a white square, Tony Visconti thought it was a fake fan made picture. The original shot by Masayoshi Sukita is now partially hidden by a white square to symbolize “forgetting and obliterating the past”. The album title in this white space is charged with a deeper meaning because let’s face it, “Heroes” is truly one of the best songs in the history of music, it is moving, utterly meaningful, shivering and its sound bears the spirit of a generation that is long gone yet so close to us because we are still here, trying to be heroes even when “nothing will keep us together”. It is a piece of history about love, the love of a King for his Queen. If “Space Oddity” has been Bowie’s first breakthrough as the Apollo 11 was flying off to the moon with its first man on it, “The Next Day” is coinciding with the return of “the man who wandered very far, very far” up to the moon, to the skies, and to the stars… So now he is certain, we are certain they live forever.
“David Bowie Is…” is not an easy sentence to end, not even for the curators of the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, who chose this title for the very first exhibition on David Bowie’s memorabilia, costumes, including the iconic creations of Kansai Yamamoto for the Aladdin Sane Tour, lyrics and everything else coming out of his personal archives. On the opening night Tilda Swinton gave a remarkable speech noting “Here I am at surely the most eclectic of all the London branches of Bowie Anonymous. All the nicest possible freaks are here”. The tickets pre-sale has been breaking every possible record and this is just another historical moment in Bowie’s history that is partly ours as well because “it is undeniable that the freak becomes the great unifier. The alien is the best company after all for so many more than the few” Bowie was nowhere to be seen that night but as Tilda said, “Our not so absent, not so invisible, friend. Every alien’s favorite cousin. Certainly mine.” and I think that the Starman finally came to meet us and he was right: he blew our mind.