During his 1995 tour of tiny club venues across England, David Bowie opened all his shows the same way. Newly-goateed and newly-toothed – American dentistry had overhauled what used to be a physical manifestation of the warning on a cigarette packet – he’d lean into the microphone and grin.
“D’you want to hear the hits?”
The crowd would explode.
“Bad fucking luck, I’m playing my new stuff.”
It was cheeky, not hostile; this wasn’t a latter-day Bob Dylan concert, where he treats the audience like an irate teacher being held back to supervise detention. Nor was it the Rolling Stones’ school of geriatric performance, which is essentially an extended exercise routine to keep Keith Richards alive.
Decades after Ziggy had been buried, the Duke deposed and Berlin evacuated, the only character that remained for a middle-aged David Jones to play was that of a middle-aged David Bowie. He was trickier than all the space-messiahs and occult-idols that had come before. He was also infinitely more sublime.
Bowie built his legacy on what is widely considered to be a near-perfect thirteen-album run. His conquest began with the 1969 record that gave us ‘Space Oddity’ and culminated in 1980 with the one that tossed out ‘Ashes to Ashes’. By this point, he was thirty-three and tired. He was feeding the press a prodigal-son narrative about leaving behind his hedonistic past while still secretly struggling with cocaine. After signing an 18-million-dollar contract with EMI, he threw together a couple of hollow singles and was wheeled out to play them to stadium audiences. He felt, in his own words, “like Phil Collins” (unfortunately for those who’ve had a spiritual experience to In the Air Tonight, he didn’t mean this in a good way).
It’s the hero-worship of the young, flawless, Dionysian genius that makes the older, clumsier, “Uncle Dave” – as he started jokingly calling himself – more fascinating. It’s also not without reason that the latter is often known for his glorious fever dream of a midlife crisis.
He crash-landed in 1988 as a member of the short-lived garage band Tin Machine, a project for which one music journalist told him to “go home, man; you’re an embarrassment” in a review that purportedly made him cry. He soundtracked his own wedding to Somali model Iman and released it on CD in 1993. In 1997 arrived a drum ‘n’ bass album to coincide with his 50th birthday and new hairstyle (remembered lovingly as the ‘Bohawk’ – look it up, or don’t). Some of this was tiresome. A lot of it was wince-inducing. All of it, however, is worth listening to; not just for its occasional moments of beauty, but because there is something to be learnt from a man who refused to do the decent thing and keel over at 27 with an unspoiled legacy.He always found it exhilarating, personally fulfilling and a little bit funny to keep flinging his new stuff at confused crowds who’d only come to hear ‘Let’s Dance’. (‘Let’s Dance’ was eventually incorporated into his live set; a flamenco-infused version with a two-minute-long intro played on classical guitar).
And then, just like that, the mania fell away into silence. After suffering a heart attack onstage in 2003, David Bowie went back to being David Jones for a little while. He retreated to his penthouse in New York, rummaged about in bookshops, strolled the streets in a cap and sunglasses with his middle finger surreptitiously extended towards the rare errant paparazzo he noticed. In the 2010s, he gave everybody a lovely shock by releasing two more albums whilst maintaining his self-imposed exile. And then he died.
There exists a theory that his vanishing act was an imitation of Marcel Duchamp’s withdrawal from the art world in 1942. Another suggests he’d finally had enough, that he desperately desired a total and decisive break from his past. Listening to the final two records, however, this is difficult to believe. They are ridiculously transcendent as always, yelped rockers on the penultimate, followed by a swan-song spun from space jazz. But now and again, there are winks and nods to those who remember the old stuff and care enough to stick around. A drumbeat from the Ziggy opus ‘Five Years’ is grafted onto a track on 2013’s The Next Day. On the last ever song of the last ever album, a harmonica line from 1977’s Low is exhumed. It is the sound of a boy from Bromley who will later remark that by all the laws of reality, he should have ended up an accountant. It is the feeling of being punched in the stomach.
David Bowie was never more interesting than when long after most people had ceased paying attention. He shrugged off his legacy and ran, returning only to make things that he didn’t expect would satisfy anybody but himself. Most of the time. In 2007, the voice of Lord Royal Highness in the 92nd episode of SpongeBob SquarePants did sound vaguely familiar to many viewers.
Sometimes an artist growing old will continue working because they still have something left to say. And sometimes it’s just because they want to make their seven-year-old daughter laugh.