So here it is, ‘The Next Day.’ Heavily trailered by the surprise release of one song ‘Where are we now?’ a couple of months ago. All melodic longing beautifully expressed. And of course, I should have guessed, there’s nothing else here on ‘The Next Day’ sounds even remotely like it. He’s being that David Bowie again.
I’ve spoken before about how long I’ve been listening to him. Well almost. But nothing about what happened after seeing him well down the bill on a package tour at the Liverpool Empire some time towards the end of the sixties. On his own, curly permed singing ‘Space Oddity.’ After which he disappeared, except for someone I knew seeing him do a support slot as a mime artist for then still acoustic Tyrannosaurus Rex. After which he disappeared.
Afternoons trudging round record shops in Liverpool and Ormskirk looking for anything by him. Rumours of an album on Philips someone had once seen. Looking so hard on the basis of what? Well not so much on the basis of one freak hit single as on the basis of one freak. You only had to see him the once to know that David Bowie was not normal. And we were fascinated.
Next we picked up that he was living in a commune in Beckenham and that he had an Arts Lab. Whatever that was we wanted one.
Five years go by and you can’t move for David Bowie. We’ve all had our Ziggy moment, when we’d turned up expecting to see Hunky Dory. And then got used to constant change that always surprised us, but the music always delighted us. Through Diamond dogs to Wild is the wind. Even if the stick thin Cracked Actor out of his head on we knew not what in some American desert limousine confused us, we still wondered where he’d go next.
He went strange. Even for him. Went and lived in Berlin and made the Low, Heroes, Lodger trilogy.
Which brings us up to now. Because, as you can see from the cover, thirty five years on he’s just added to that trilogy. And listening to ‘The Next Day’ these first few times reminds me of listening to them. Difficult at first.
‘Can’t get enough of that doomsday song.’
And fooled in my expectations by two songs. ‘Where are we now?’ of course, but also ‘Heroes.’ Over time that’s become such a part of me, such a part of my waking and walking over all these years that it’s obscured how downright strange so much else that was on those albums sounded at first.
‘They’re waiting to make their moves, sexless and unaroused, they burn you with their radiant smiles, we will never be rid of these stars.’
Of course we didn’t have Twitter then, so we lived with the fact that the new stuff was a bit strange. And we got on and listened to it. Because the LPs had cost us a fair bit of our grants or wages, and because we remembered that strange was why we liked him so much. We didn’t Tweet the mild disappointments, the ‘What’s with all the guitars?’ that I’ve seen bits of this week. We listened until the strange became fascination, became beauty. It was no effort, and strange was still strange. Always crashing in the same car, The secret life of Arabia, the side two pieces of, well, what?
And here’s that feeling again. Precisely that feeling. Writing this slow sentence by slow sentence I’m on my third listen through tonight. Fifth in all. Pausing between paragraphs for whole songs.
‘I could wear your new blue shoes, I should wear your old red dress. I go way back. I’ve got a gift of sorts.’
And it’s becoming a fascination I know is going to illuminate these next few weeks while I get used to this precious record.
‘I’d rather be dead or out of my head than training these guns on the men in the sand.’
I’ve read some newspaper opinions saying there’s a lot of ‘late life’ and ‘death’ on here. I don’t hear it yet. I hear someone enjoying himself. Dancing out in space, remembering how good it feels to work with his musician friends again and realise how much he enjoys it. So much that he breaks out singing ‘Apache’ by The Shadows half way through ‘How does the grass grow?’ Yes, fifth listen through and just worked out what it was. This is all starting to work.
And then there’s a fold in time.
‘Leaving slips of paper hidden in the park. I bet you feel so lonely you could die?’
A gift from the boy who wrote Hunky Dory. Ending with the drums from Five Years. Before moving into the space Scott Walker’s been occupying these past twenty years or so.
‘Trapped between the rocks, blocking the waterfall. I tell myself I don’t know who I am. My father ran the prison. I can only love you by hating him more. That’s not the truth.’
This is a proper David Bowie album. A real treat for these next few weeks and the years it will be part of my life.
And I’m delighted he’s still difficult and strange. It’s what attracted me in the first place. And I say that as one of the two people here who runs an Arts Lab!
See also ‘Listening to David Bowie.’