The Thing About Bowie

Ahead of a live screening from the David Bowie is exhibition, we take a look at the year that has seen the release of a new Bowie album, and, why we still care … 

The last time I approached writing about David Bowie, it was very much backwards-looking, both eyes firmly on the past; it would be a retrospective piece in every sense of the word.

He’d recently turned 65 and it seemed apt to deal with the occasion in that matter; indeed, it felt like the only way.

It began (where-else but at the start?) with his early, largely abortive attempts at cracking even modest stardom: “From the Konrads to the King Bees and the Manish Boys, he flitted from unsophisticated rock ‘n’ roll to equally rudimentary blues and soul,” and ended on the upbeat, but definite cul-de-sac of, “To my mind, Bowie’s contribution to the expectations and progression of his craft is beyond compare.”

In my defence, where else was there to go?  

“2013 has belonged to the Thin White Duke”

‘Was’ being the operative word, for – albeit in relatively unassuming fashion – 2013 has belonged to the Thin White Duke, meaning that those 65th birthday celebrations feel a long time ago now.

Of course, when putting together my picks of forthcoming exhibitions at the turn of the year, one of the shows that stood out was David Bowie is at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Still, we (by which I think I mean everyone not in the know) expected that this would be an addendum – however special – to the previous year’s celebrations of a man, so long in the vanguard of British culture, who was/is now quickly approaching his (frankly hard to imagine) 70th year.  

In the event, Bowie, as he has done throughout his career (will we ever learn?), surprised us all, when on his 66th birthday he released his first new material in a decade with single Where Are We Now?

The single – broadly well received by critics and fans alike – was accompanied by the news that he would also be releasing a new full length album, coming a few weeks ahead of the opening of the V&A celebrations. Safe to say the music press (and the media generally) was quickly awash with the unexpected news.

“He hadn’t generated this many column inches since suffering a heart attack on stage in 2004″

He hadn’t generated this many column inches since suffering a heart attack on stage in 2004 (subsequently cancelling a tour); but now, and for all the right reasons, he was big news again. When the album arrived it became the latest in a long line of Bowie releases to be greeted with the ‘his best material since Scary Monsters’ type fanfare.

The difference this time was that the claims had more credence, The Next Day feels fresh not forced, even if it also evokes an undeniable familiarity. His biographer Paul Trynka, speaking to the Guardian, said at the time: “[Where Are We Now?] namechecks all the places he used to hang out with Iggy Pop and Martin Kippenberger. That’s significant because he’s always eschewed nostalgia.”

The exhibition and the new material led to countless hastily put-together Bowie clip shows and a re-run of the truly exceptional Alan Yentob Arena film from 1974, Cracked Actor, which documents a rock star addicted to cocaine, paranoid and on the edge.

Each time I saw a new Bowie-themed addition to the listings, I feared ‘here it is finally, here comes the Bowie-fatigue,’ but each time I watched, rapt as ever at this man of his own magpie-like-making, whose songs and multiple personae have never really left my, or contemporary culture’s, consciousness.

Our continued fascination was perfectly explained by Trynka, asserting: “Isn’t he the last of the greats?”

And yes, he is. For this reason, amongst others, I can’t wait to take my seat to watch David Bowie is happening now Live from the V&A, in which the exhibition’s curators and assorted faces of the great and good variety gather to discuss David Bowie, his career and no doubt his legacy. Which he seems – lucky for us – intent on adding to.

See you there.

Mike Pinnington

David Bowie is happening now Encore screens Monday 19th August 9pm @ FACT

Posted on 13/08/2013 by thedoublenegative