Make no mistake, Donny McCaslin, this genial giant sax player from California, has had a distinguished career in jazz. He’s spent nearly three decades carving out a groove in modern jazz playing, starting with filling the huge shoes of Michael Brecker in the legendary fusion group Steps Ahead. With three Grammy nominations to his name, he’s become the trusted right-hand man of bandleader Maria Schneider, herself a multiple Grammy winner. The dreaded term ‘crossover’ has come to be applied in jazz to artists who break out of the somewhat closed jazz world (closed to mainstream rock/pop fans, in that sense) and make a break across the aisle. In the 70s it was Herbie Hancock who did it, and even before then Miles Davis – the greatest jazz artist of all time – had broken the mould, with Kind Of Blue becoming the best-selling, and most famous, jazz album of all time.
Historically, plenty of pop musicians (looking at you, Sting) have sought out jazz players on their records to give them a bit of cool. And as a lifelong jazz fan, Bowie was no different, taking on saxophonist David Sanborn and trumpeter Lester Bowie to play on his records, among others. Even Mike Garson, of course, is a jazz player. As we all know, Bowie was one of the great casting directors of our time. But beyond bit parts – musicians popping up – he had never given over an entire record to jazz musicians, until Blackstar. Everyone knows the story now. He wanted to continue his collaboration with Schneider after their magnificent foray with Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) in 2014. But she had already committed to her Grammy-winning Thompson Fields project. So she pressed a copy of McCaslin’s Casting For Gravity into his hand (having sent him this link to a live version of the track Stadium Jazz first) and suggested they visit Greenwich Village’s Bar 55 to see his quartet (with Mark Guiliana, Tim Lefebvre and Jason Lindner). McCaslin says he spotted Bowie sitting at a table with Schneider, tried to keep calm, as you would, and just concentrate on playing. Shortly after, he got an invite to perform on what would turn out to be Bowie’s last album. Since then, one imagines, his feet haven’t touched the ground as, suddenly, this brilliant, powerful quartet have become among the most famous jazz musicians in the world.
During a short European tour, McCaslin’s group (minus Lefebvre, whose regular gig – with the arena-filling Tedeschi Trucks Band – called; replaced by Jonathan Maron) called at Shoreditch’s Rich Mix, packing out the overheated main room and shaking the walls. They’d dropped into London to play some stuff from his new Beyond Now album, a follow-up to 2015’s excellent Fast Future. You could tell the crowd had some Bowie fans at their first jazz gig present; they looked a bit shell-shocked. As I heard someone say, listening to jazz on record is hardly like seeing it live. It’s so much more visceral, muscular, and frankly, louder than you can imagine, especially with a fusion quartet like the one McCaslin leads. The bass thundered. Lindner’s synthesiser textures lent a cosmic vibe reminiscent of the early 70s electric playing of Keith Jarrett when he was with Miles. Guiliana’s complex, intricate drumming evoked the greats; one can feel comfortable comparing him to all-time greats like Elvin Jones and Jack DeJohnette, alongside recent masters like Brian Blade and Kendrick Lamar’s drummer Ron Bruner Jr. That’s how good he is. Get his 2015 album Family First; you won’t regret it.
McCaslin leads this band through twisting and turning renditions of songs new and old. You might have expected Warszawa to be on the setlist; the band closed with it. Less expected but incredibly welcome were two more Bowie songs. First, one that caused the room to experience a sharp intake of breath – Lazarus. It sent a chill, until of course the sax came in where the voice should have been and then it took off, with the closing section containing some absolutely remarkable playing from McCaslin, who was on fire all evening. Then, a lovely surprise, the very familiar drum part of Look Back In Anger kicked in and off we went. The room was electrified. If you’d never seen a jazz gig before, or even if you’d seen 100, this was a top class night.
This rage in me
I've got a handful of songs to sing
To sting your soul
To fuck you over
This furious reign
David Bowie – Killing A Little Time
A person or thing regarded as a representative symbol or as worthy of veneration
Icon (noun) – definition from the Oxford English Dictionary
I don’t write much, I don’t write enough. I don’t write unless I need to say something. There was no intention to write about Lazarus, Bowie’s final work, but here we go. Is it his final work? I suppose it’s his joint last work, alongside ★. These works of art dovetailed each other, the play being begun in 2014, the album made in 2015, the play finished off at the same time. Then came the album’s title track in November, following by the play’s premiere in December, and finally, the album in January 2016. They are a Venn diagram of the last two years of his life; the play bristling with anger, the album filled with sadness, creating together the masterpiece of the perfect exit. A lyric, for a song written in 1992, recorded in 2003, springs into my mind:
You promised me the ending would be clear
You'd let me know when the time was now
Don't let me know when you're opening the door
Stab me in the dark, let me disappear
I’m writing this first part the day before I see Lazarus in London, because tomorrow the meaning will change. And unlike ★, which I spent three days listening to (January 8-10) without knowing the meaning was about to be ripped open dramatically, I do know this time that his final work is about to come to me anew.
This is not a review of Lazarus, because others will do that better. Suffice to say, it’s a wonderful, odd and thrilling fever dream of an evening at the theatre. It’s confused and confusing, it’s only really got two great characters (Newton and Girl), and most of the London cast is changed from New York. The theatre is absolutely huge: five times larger, going from the NYTW’s 198 seats to 1002 (unless I’m counting wrong! I thought it was 960…) in King’s Cross. The songs carry it forward, as if he wrote them over a span of 45 years to tell this story. It’s sieved through this character, who he identified with when at his worst during the making of The Man Who Fell To Earth, and who he let follow him throughout his life and chose to ally with just before he left the earth. He sent Lazarus to London in his place. He sent his costumes and lyrics and drawings to London in his place. He sent his art collection to Sotheby’s in London in his place. The 2013 V&A exhibition was a method of ‘touring’, since he had little interest in doing any actual touring, with nothing to gain from appearing on stage. As ever, he created the parameters (choose from my archive, from the artefacts I let you see) and had the V&A curate a retrospective that he visited, quietly, privately, with his family. As ever, again, like the consummate casting director he was, he created the parameters to let Lazarus and ★ keep him alive in perpetuity. ★ occupies a rather physical, tangible place; it’s mostly listened to alone, at home, or during travel, or walking down the street. It’s not a communal experience; it’s not acted out without him and the musicians on it (outside of cover versions, to which I say, too soon!). Lazarus, the play, is a live version of his final thoughts. The actors give you his message, in person. I didn’t know any of this when I was in NYC in December 2015. What was it like then? What can I remember now that will tomorrow be joined by new memories in the hard drive of my brain?
I was nervous, that it wouldn’t be any good. It was ambitious, daring, a mad thing for him to do: a musical, which he’d dreamed of and planned for over 40 years, coming out at the same time as a new album. The one thing he had never done, and now, running out of time, it was the last thing he wanted to do. Gifts upon gifts for me, for us. Seeing it in NYC was a remarkable experience, done twice on consecutive nights. I hardly understood a thing on the first night; it was impossible to take in, the density and complexity of it all. Overwhelming in every way. The second night I got a handle on it, and though I try to shy away from being too literal, those I spoke to immediately after, with heads spinning, already thought it was all about death long before we realised it was about his death. Of course, it’s open to interpretation from all angles and there is no definitive reading (multiple readings, the absence of an authoritative voice and all that). Is the ‘Girl’ character Newton’s surrogate daughter? Yes, the casting call says so (though interestingly she was supposed to be over 18 until they saw then-nearly-14-year-old Sophia Anne Caruso and she dazzled, so the part went younger). If Bowie is Newton, again (as he was in 1976), is Girl a cipher for his own daughter (Caruso is 11 months younger)? I think so. I don’t know so, and I never will. Ambiguity and performance: the two constants throughout a 50-year career. He was never himself, there was always smoke and mirrors. He never explained, and you wouldn’t want him to anyway (not that he didn’t muse on the idea of revealing more over the years before losing interest and moving onto the next new thing).
I don’t want the meaning of Lazarus to change, but it will, when I see it again. I didn’t want the meaning of ★ to change, but against my will it did. A friend told me that he couldn’t get the notion of Lazarus being entirely/only about Bowie’s death out of his head during the play when he saw it at a London preview. Understandable, and that’s what spurred me to write this, as I have the New York version playing in my head and, honestly, how many people will be able to write about seeing it in both cities? One or two hundred? It’s special to me, now, more than ever, the ‘before and after’ contexts. Now Lazarus comes to London, like a morbid travelling version of his ashes. What’s new? So far, what I know is that the brief appearance of a famous actor on the screen has been excised. Good creative decision, as I found it distracting. A too-famous face takes you out of the moment. There’s one more new big creative decision, to put Bowie’s face on screen at the end, which was absent in NYC even after January 10. I’ll see it tomorrow and decide how I feel about it, but my gut feeling (which I suspect I’ll be largely alone in) is that it’s a fucking dreadful, mawkish decision that grates in the worst kind of sentimental, emotionally manipulative way. And for sure, if you knew him at all, you’d know he’d hate that. He refused to have Heroes in the show until Henry Hey re-arranged it so it couldn’t be sung along to (the Lazarus version sounds like the bleakest John Lewis Christmas advert ever). He was not a sentimental man. The subtlety of the references to him inside the play – a few scattered vinyl albums in a corner, a brief snippet of Sound and Vision – were clever, jarring in a good way, and deliciously cheeky. But a photo of him so we can applaud at the end? He’s dead, I get it, I know it, I don’t need to hear a big cheer in a theatre. That brings me to another reason I wanted to write this, to talk about changing fandom and iconography.
It’s been a weird year, in innumerable ways. Setting aside real world life and death and politics and the depressing right-wing rise of what was previously unspoken in polite company, the transformation of Bowie from a live, real human person into this deified dead guy, standing alongside Elvis and John and Amy, has been pretty hard to take. It won’t last, I predict; most people will lose interest in a year or two. His marketable quality won’t match that of Michael Jackson or (what a year) Prince (whose ashes are being displayed in a miniature urn in the shape of Paisley Park, inside the newly opened museum of the actual Paisley Park. Not even kidding). Nor will his rock legend infamy be as long lasting as the murder of Lennon or the bloated junkie self-destruction of Presley. But to make financial hay while the sun shines, the legacy bombardment has started and it’s only the tip of the iceberg of trying to open our wallets. His own estate has many decisions to make about what comes out and when, and at what pace, as they drip-feed us promises of new mixes and alternative takes and so forth. Without Coco in charge, I have little faith that his ruthless, always forward-looking spirit will be honoured. Or more accurately, that business decisions will be made that stop at this red light first: ‘would he have been ok with this coming out? Would he have been ok with me saying/writing this?’ In the pursuit of money, and in the cloudy heads of grieving family, I’m quite sure that plenty of stuff is going to happen that I don’t like. And that’s just from the people who actually knew him.
The next category – those who worked with him either briefly or on and off – have their own books to write. The final category – those who met him briefly and are gleeful about making a few bob out of it – is the one that I must try and go to my happy place when I hear about. I don’t think I’ve ever written this word in any writing before, but there are some people who are just behaving like plain old cunts (among others, I’m talking to you, Lesley-Ann Jones, you hack; I’m flattered you blocked me on Twitter out of your own guilt and glad to hear that your shitty book has tanked). Rather than being ashamed of themselves, their greed and narcissism, like a normal human would be, they delight in the attention their falsehoods bring them. But that’s it, isn’t it? He’s no longer someone who belongs to me, to you, he’s everyone’s, for a while at least. He’s a face on a t-shirt in Camden Market.
We’re all still trying to process what life is like without him. The transformation of our fandom, which is out of our control. Mostly, I just feel… grateful. Lucky. That I exist now, a miraculous pinprick on this spinning rock, and that I existed at the same time as him on a planet 4.5 billion years old. That he made music that I’ve sewn into myself, grafted onto my heart. That he told me about non-music things (like art and philosophy and literature) like an inspiring teacher. That he gave me non-music gifts, like people who I’d never have met if not for him, who I lived half a world away from and had a one in 7.4 billion chance of meeting. It was all one way, from him to me. I’ve nothing much to offer, there’s nothing much to take…
Let’s wrap up part one: the ‘before’. I can close my eyes and think of how I felt walking into the New York Theatre Workshop on December 9/10, 2015. Excitement, trepidation. Ready to fall in love with him for the thousandth time in 30 years. So high it made my brain whirl. Dear friends around me, joined together from all over the world to celebrate the second part (after The Next Day) of this most unexpected return, after nearly a decade of near-silence. Hugging and crying, drinks and hangovers, singing and laughing into the early hours, and the next day and the next. That was how New York felt, and will never feel again.
Tomorrow that context changes, which is fitting in itself as who else was he but someone constantly on the move? Never look back, walk tall, act fine. Much more than ★, Lazarus is the exile’s legacy. It’s an audacious wink from beyond the grave about resurrection. It’s about a man who left England when he was young but spent the rest of his life collecting art that reminded him of home. Spent his last overseas trip taking his child around old London addresses. Spent one of his last songs talking with sadness of never being able to visit England’s evergreens again. The sailor who spent his life travelling has executed his master plan, which will leave me forever in awe, and is finally home.
Before I start, on this fine morning, where I awake to the frankly unbelievable news of my team having beaten the biggest and best in world football, I would like to say that I loved Lazarus in NYC. Sure, it didn’t make a huge amount of sense, I thought Walsh’s book was a bit of a mess and I was just happy to have the songs carry it home. I didn’t really like Cristin Milioti as Elly and the Greek chorus of girls had a fairly undefined, shaky role. The supporting characters felt a bit underwritten too. It had the air of an idea being worked out; after all, the clue is in the title. The New York Theatre Workshop. My dear friend Jake, the most knowledgeable theatre nerd I have ever known, told me that it was going to be much bigger and better in London, and that the intention was always to bring it home and watch it soar. We agreed that the NYC production was, essentially, a dry run for the real thing. I still treasure every second of the NYTW production, for what it gave me at a particular time, and that holiday will be something to remember forever.
So, you can understand that I had felt a bit anxious about seeing it again, kind of fearful that it would have the same effect on me as ★. That it would have its second meaning – it’s all about his death – revealed to me as the album did. That I would find it hard to get through without crying. That it would be, frankly, a depressing experience in the world of ‘after’. Absolutely none of those things happened. I’m as surprised as I could possibly be. To say the producers and creatives have pulled this show together is to commit a great understatement. It has taken all the elements that Bowie and Walsh and Van Hove put into the NYTW production and tightened them beyond what I thought was possible. There are entirely new sections of dialogue. There are performances that soar in a way they never did before (primarily Amy Lennox as Elly, with singing and acting of top quality – Always Crashing, I never thought it could be like that, with some light in it). Everything is bigger. The stage set is several feet larger all around, and this suddenly allows everyone the space they need to tell this story properly. The dialogue is polished and sharper, the central performances given the breathing space to be even better than in NYC from Hall and Caruso. It’s not at all about death. It’s about love, it’s about defeating forces that try to stop love from working, it’s about mental illness (a very old subject for Bowie to get back into), it’s about letting go. All the bits that didn’t quite work in NYC have been coalesced here. It is a truly, properly fantastic play. A theatre experience that absolutely works as a piece of art, not just a collection of great songs on a piece of string with some ropey dialogue holding it all together. There are still some rather Broadway moments (mein herr!), like Changes and Life On Mars, but that’s fine, you must allow a touch of glamour!
The final scene, of course, is still a bit of a wrench. The dialogue about reading to his ‘daughter’ on the hill, the farewell, it’s hard not to see the real life behind that. I felt a bit choked up, a heartstring tugged, but you know… Heroes will do that. He gave it greater meaning in the 2000s himself, following 9/11, and on tour, and it’s intensely powerful here. Even the photo of Bowie at the end on the screen was fairly unobtrusive and not made a big deal out of (though it isn’t needed and I still think they’d do well to drop it).
I do not subscribe to the idea that The Next Day’s songs were destined for this; rather that he fitted them around bits of the story. So on the album Valentine’s Day is about a school shooting, but here it’s the big theme for the murderous, psychotic Valentine – played with so very much more menace and darkness, eliciting genuine dread, by Michael Esper than in NYC. The Next Day is a backward-looking album, his only one. It’s taking stock, it’s angry, it’s partially a statement on the 20th century’s wars and religion and their effect on culture (I’d Rather Be High, Grass Grow, The Next Day). It’s wistful for England (Dirty Boys), wistful for Germany (Where Are We Now?) and coruscating on those who deserve it (You Feel So Lonely…). It even finishes with a nod to where he’s going next, as he often did, with Heat. It’s about love and mortality and the future. It’s about a man with a young child and a heart condition coming to terms with his own fragility. It’s actually not ★ but The Next Day that makes more sense now, because of Lazarus. ★ is nothing to do with this play, beyond the song Lazarus, which he only put on there, quite clearly, to promote his final masterwork. The remaining three new songs come alive here in a more convincing way than his versions on the cast album (though, as ever, nobody delivers a song better; No Plan destroys me). Killing A Little Time is absolutely thrilling here, though the ★ band version is a level up again. The sung counterpoints of When I Met You give the song a real electricity jolt. And the new band, led briefly by Henry Hey before he goes back to NYC next week, are also more convincing and well drilled.
All the creative decisions that were made for this London run worked. Jake bumped into the director, Ivo van Hove, on the way in (ok, in the loo) and told him we saw it in NYC. He replied, “I can’t believe how big it’s gotten!” You’re not kidding. Everything simply makes more sense now, like the characters’ motivations and how they’re played. It’s about 20 minutes shorter, cuts have been made that work, speeches have been created that illuminate and songs land that hadn’t quite nailed it before (like Where Are We Now?). The visual projections dazzle and have new supercuts flashing past that will let me spot new things each time I see it (caught a fast flash of Boys Keep Swinging after the final wig comes off). I do think it made a bit of a difference to be seated right in the centre of the front row, with Valentine hovering over my head, getting to see the intricacies of the facial expressions and interplay. Having said that, I can’t wait to see it again (hopefully soon) in another seat. Then in another. Even from the back row, which must feel like a mile away.
I thought it would make me sad, make me think about him not being here. But, unlike the album, I can now see that it wasn’t designed that way. They’ve made his lifelong dream of writing a brilliant musical come true. It does him proud, and I am so proud of him for making it possible.
I’ve not felt like writing this year at all, but I know from previous experience that when that feeling is ready to pass I will just get this… compulsion to put fingers to keys as there’s something I need to get out. I’m still processing the last six months, which have contained the most significant personal events since my mother’s passing nearly four years ago. I know what loss feels like. In the last few weeks I’ve talked to several friends who’ve asked for my version of events so, perhaps in some desire to not forget anything, I’m going to try and write down what’s happened.
As it’ll be long I’m making a decision to do something I’ve never done before, not a diary exactly, but to split the events into different months. A friend told me that the lead-up (the play, the album, the holiday) to Bowie’s passing is the most remarkable part of my version of the story, and I know what she means. She asked me if there was a word to describe how that feels – to be on the top of the world, with no idea something awful is coming – and I don’t think there is, but it’s certainly… cruel. Perhaps all this would have been easier if he’d shuffled off this mortal coil in 2007 or 2009 or 2011, when he was just doing his thing, at home, with seemingly no interest in making music at all. I now realise how lucky we were not to lose him in 2004. Gail Ann Dorsey relating what happened when he had the heart attack, which nobody present had spoken about before, chilled me to the bone. But he didn’t die in 2004, or during 2012, when he was making his return record, The Next Day. He came back and gave us three more years of music, which only seems to have made coping with losing him worse.
One day perhaps a book will be written about the making of Blackstar. But, briefly, what we know so far is that during his cancer treatment he went into the now-closed Magic Shop studio two blocks downtown from his Manhattan apartment and recorded in the first week of each month of January, February and March 2015, as much as chemo would allow (I know all about the effects of chemo, sadly, and one week’s work in a month sounds about right). His initial idea was to continue the collaboration he started with Maria Schneider the year before on Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime) (single edit), but by then she had committed to her brilliant Grammy-winning record The Thompson Fields. As she couldn’t help out, and he didn’t have time to waste, she recommended one of her principal musicians, saxophonist Donny McCaslin. She pressed a CD of his excellent album Casting For Gravity into Bowie’s hand and advised him to visit the jazz club Bar 55, which he did without fanfare, to see Donny’s quartet play. He invited the band (on drums the remarkable Mark Guiliana, Ben Monder on guitar – they both appeared on Sue – Jason Lindner on keyboards and Tim Lefebvre – whose day job is with the Tedeschi Trucks Band – on bass) to play on Blackstar, sent them highly evolved demos and they made the album. That’s the short version of what happened. Tim Lefebvre has done some excellent interviews about the process, like this one, which are well worth seeking out. Bowie and Visconti produced the record and it was completed over the next few months. At the same time, incredibly, Bowie was also working, with playwright Enda Walsh and director Ivo Van Hove, on a sequel of sorts to his first starring role, The Man Who Fell To Earth. He would record/produce Blackstar during the day then head to Enda’s flat to co-write this new play, Lazarus, at night. It was a race against time in every sense. That’s the background. Here’s where I come in.
Lazarus was due to premiere in New York in December. I can’t remember whose idea it was to go, but it was based on getting tickets to the opening night, which our wonderful community of Bowie freaks had decided on as the night we all should go. When they went on sale Leah and I were at the mercy of friends who’d joined the New York Theatre Workshop and we crossed our fingers for a pair. Charlie Brookes was our saviour and tickets were procured (on the night, BowieNetters dominated the theatre, with probably 60+ of the 198 seats taken up by friends), at which point the search began for accommodation and flights. Division of labour is the best way to plan a holiday, so Leah did the flights while I trawled Airbnb for suitable apartments. The first couple of days were fun, looking into people’s houses and lives, but the novelty wore off quickly. After a long week of searching I found a pretty perfect, sparse, one might say minimalist, 3rd floor walk-up apartment on East 14th Street and Avenue B. It was near NYU, where Leah would work during the day (it’s how she got a week off work mid-term, by being a visiting scholar). Everything was booked.
Nothing momentous, comparatively, happened this month. I worked on an inflight magazine. I went to see the Rocky Horror Show a few times. We went to see Morrissey, which was, as ever, fantastic. My 16th time seeing him – that’s one more than Bowie. Though if we’re going to be technical and nerdy about it, which I always am, I’ve seen Moz 17 times because there was that gig at the Roundhouse where he sang three songs and walked off (lost voice), but I also saw Bowie in person twice more for TV shows, so really that’s 17 as well. I digress.
Bowie announces to my excitement that his new album Blackstar will be released on his 69th birthday on January 8th 2016. The Blackstar single and video were to be released on November 19th and it felt like all was good with the world. A New York trip to look forward to and a new album were more than I could ever have hoped for. I think now of how we all waited nearly a decade between Reality and The Next Day and it seems like another lifetime.
The week before the song premiered, my friend Mark and I drove to Cambridge University on the 11th to see Leah do a talk about Bowie and what was coming. At that time we had only a 30-second clip of Blackstar from the opening titles of the Sky series The Last Panthers (directed by Johan Renck, who also did both Blackstar videos). It was a fun evening, filled with excitement about the new record and a seriously brilliant presentation on his music (yeah, not on his hair or his clothes; on his creative practice and life as a composer, plus awesome data analysis).
On the 17th dad, Leah, her partner Ben and I went to see the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra at Cadogan Hall, near Sloane Square. We sat front row and it was just fantastic, what a great night. McCaslin, who dad says reminds him of the late, great Michael Brecker, was the lead soloist, blasting away five feet in front of me, and I had not a clue in the world he was on Blackstar. I heard the song for the first time two days later.
I feel so grateful now that I have a relationship with Blackstar, the song, which predates the events of January. The video (shot in September) is a masterpiece and I obsessed over it for days, then weeks. The song I think is absolutely one of the best he has ever done, and it’s starting to rival Teenage Wildlife for my Bowie Desert Island Disc. I did think he looked old in the video but then, he was pushing 70 and the flattering camera filters and copious make-up used for the videos from The Next Day were clearly no longer being employed. It was clear to me that he had finally released all vanity and was just being seen; he looked so engaged, enthused and vibrant in the video, and it gave us all so much pleasure. Some fans had said they hated jazz then had no choice but to grudgingly accept it when Sue came out because it was such a brilliant record. The same people were now faced with yet more non-pop music that challenged them, which as a jazz nerd I took a perverse pleasure in. Bowie does jazz? Then hires five jazz musicians to play on his last record? It’s like all my Chanukahs came at once.
For the first time since Bowie last toured, a big contingent of British (and some European) BowieNetters made their way to New York, to be united with our American BowieNet family. Leah and I arrived on Saturday the 5th, in the evening, and decided to do a bit of grocery shopping and spend our first night in the apartment. My recollection is that we watched The Wiz Live! on TV and fell about laughing at how terrible it was. We met up with the legendary Dick Mac on Sunday and went to the famed White Horse Tavern, once the haunt of Dylan Thomas, Kerouac and other luminaries, and then for dinner. It was at that point that I met Paul, Leah’s friend from Brisbane who’d come over for the show. What a fantastic guy, I adored him from the first minute. We headed over to Otto’s Shrunken Head, a dive bar three doors away from the apartment (we’re no fools!), to meet up with Bowie friends. My remembrance of the evening is somewhat coloured by pints of cocktails followed by a 4am stagger into bed.
The Monday contained perhaps the worst hangover I have ever had. Mountains of sushi did nothing to calm it, so as Leah went to work I hooked up with my wonderful friend Jake, my daytime companion, and off we went on a pilgrimage I’d always wanted to make, one that my mum talked about often, which was to see the grave of Miles Davis, up at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. I felt so ill, I can’t even tell you. But we made it, with Jake’s excellent navigation, and I paid my respects, which mum would have been proud of, before we headed to Harlem to visit Langston Hughes’s house then eat at Sylvia’s, the legendary soul food place. I put my head on the table and struggled through a bit of food (mac and cheese, and little else; not much available for the vegetarian). We went to the legendary Apollo, where I bought dad some gifts (and impressed the guy behind the counter by identifying Miles in a photo collage in two seconds) and then walked down to Central Park, laughing hysterically all the way. We were a bit worried about Lazarus not being any good and had a few parodies ready at its expense (mein herr!). Jake was flagging and bailed out of evening activities, which were dinner at Sigiri, a Sri Lankan restaurant (too spicy, I was still ill), followed by some live band karaoke at Arlene’s Grocery.
This was the day of the play’s press night – Monday the 7th – and many of our friends had gone to the theatre to wait outside to see if Bowie would turn up. It never occurred to me to do the same, it’s not my kind of thing. I saw him live plenty of times, I didn’t need to watch him walk into a theatre for five seconds, but I’d be lying now if I said I wasn’t at least slightly regretful that I didn’t get to see him in person one last time. At dinner, Leah showed me the pictures that had been posted on our Facebook group; indeed, he had turned up of course, looking happy and handsome, taking his bow on stage at the end with Ivo and the cast. Friends came to join us at dinner, straight from the theatre, looking high and glazed, having laid eyes on him for the first time since 2004 (a few others had seen his final live appearance in 2006).
That night at Arlene’s Grocery (Leah performed Superfreak and I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so hard in my life) was one of the most fun nights I can remember. Everyone was so incredibly happy. To be in New York, ready to see his play, most having seen him in the flesh earlier in the evening, it was a beautiful, special night. People got up and sang and the organisers were amazed that so many of us in the bar had flown over just for the play. I think we watched Tootsie when we got home (might have been the night after).
The next day, Tuesday, after a bit of gift buying, Jake and I spent the afternoon in the Mad Hatter, a Man City pub, believe it or not, watching City play. We won in the last few minutes, which felt fitting for such a trip. Then we all went to a friend’s party at her apartment, which was so much fun, one of those proper New York evenings where you feel like you’re in a movie. I wasn’t sleeping well of course, in a strange bed, using earplugs to block out the famed NYC hum, but I didn’t care. Subsisting on four hours a night on holiday is par for the course, even if it does later in the week lead to sleep-deprived, jetlag-induced hysteria. I don’t think have ever laughed as much as I did on this holiday.
Wednesday was Lazarus day and my friend Kate was flying in just for the show. I had not seen her in several years and we’d arranged to spend the day together. After another play of Blackstar on You Tube, Leah went to work and I went to Katz’s Deli on East Houston for breakfast as I waited for Kate’s plane to land from Ohio. She’s a hairdresser and we had organised to meet at the Aveda salon on Prince Street. In between Katz’s (a 10-minute walk downtown from our apartment) and Aveda is a building on Lafayette Street we now no longer need to pretend we don’t know about. There is a collection of penthouses and Bowie’s family live in two of them. I’ve walked past it and looked up many times over the years, even though I didn’t know which penthouse was his and nor did I care. It was kind of lovely to just know he was up there, tootling around in his man cave, making demos in his studio, reading and emailing incessantly, doing school stuff with his daughter, just doing New York things. A friend of mine, Lori, who works downtown, said that she would always wave up to him if she happened to walk past the building because she knew “he was up early too”. She didn’t wave because he could see her, nor did she walk past because she ever wanted to bump into him on the street (can you imagine! I’d have run a mile if I’d ever seen him slinking around, with his flat cap on). She did it just because he was there, and it was good to know he was just living life in his city, like we all live our lives in our cities and towns. I walked right across the front of the building to get to the salon and I looked up and smiled, wondering if he was happy with Lazarus and how the press had received it. Kate’s plane was delayed so I took a walk around the neighbourhood and popped into the Taschen store on Greene Street, which happened to have Mick Rock’s huge Bowie book on display. When Kate arrived we leapt into each other’s arms like we’d been apart a hundred years. After a quick drool over the Bowie book back at Taschen we got a ludicrously slow taxi uptown to meet a friend of hers for lunch, then came back down to meet up for a long coffee date with a big cheese at Aveda. He was English and seriously good company, the kind of guy who remembers very little of the 90s in London. It was time for Lazarus.
Early the next morning we decided we had to see it again on our last night in the city, so I resolved to go down to the theatre while Leah was at work and get more tickets, which I did. It made a more complete picture, as much as it could, the second time. Our last night in New York was spent in the apartment with a couple of beers just watching TV, out of sheer exhaustion. On the final day we went, with Paul, to Katz’s for brunch, then did a lovely walk around the Highline, before heading off to the airport, where we had a few glasses of celebratory Prosecco at Sammy Hagar’s Beach Bar and Grill (really) before a night flight home, landing on the morning of the 12th. It was a landmark trip.
We got back to real life and work, and the Lazarus single was released on the 17th (with the video to come 3 weeks later). Hearing Bowie sing it was kind of strange, given that we’d seen Michael C. Hall do it live on stage (and on Colbert’s Late Show on the 18th). It felt like Bowie’s ‘version’ of the song from the play almost! New year came and went. At some point I’d committed to going to a playback of Blackstar at the Dolby offices in Soho, with a group of BowieNetters of course, so I had a ton of stuff to look forward to in the first week of…
On Thursday the 7th the Lazarus video (shot in December) premiered. I thought the hospital bed stuff was kind of dark and a bit physically unflattering but that the sections with the stripy outfit (the master of the call-back strikes again, for the last time) were amazing and he looked fantastic. Leah and I talked about how great he looked, those cheekbones! I can’t stress enough how nobody thought he was unwell. All press coverage of his appearance at the Lazarus premiere focused on how great he looked. Yes, he looked thin, but he often did; no alarm bell was raised.
The playback that night was fun, if a little too loud, and I saw some of the same people I’d been with in New York. On Friday, his birthday, I listened to Blackstar on repeat all day. It was a lot to take in, but Dollar Days was already even then able to make me weep. I listened to it several times over the weekend. Some of the tracks I already knew – the title track was already well embedded with seven weeks of plays under its belt; Lazarus had been making me crazy in a good way for three weeks (that sax solo breakdown, my god!); the new heavy version of Sue I loved as much as the majestic jazz version from 2014; Tis A Pity She Was A Whore I knew the demo of, as Sue’s B-side; the other three songs were new to me and I devoured every note. What a weekend that was. A new Bowie album to obsess over! I was so happy. A happy idiot, like Wile E. Coyote standing at the bottom of the ravine, with not a care in the world, and not a clue that there was a huge boulder plummeting toward my head.
The beginning of Monday morning – January 11th – was a bit of a blur. I thought I heard my phone make the noise of a text alert and I roused myself from my pillow. I picked it up and saw that it was around 7.40am, and I had not one, but three, texts. I unlocked the phone and saw that I had three messages from three people who know me but not each other. I stared at the unopened messages and saw that all three had the word ‘sorry’ in the first few words. My brain works fast in the morning and, this is where you think I might be pretending that this is true, or even lying about it, but I am not: I knew he was gone. I knew in a split second that I was receiving these messages because my icon was gone. When they found out their first thought was of me. And in their shock and upset they were compelled to reach out to say something. There is no person other than David Bowie that would produce such an effect in every person I know. I didn’t even open their texts until later in the day. My head started to spin and I could feel my face going red, with panic setting in. I bounced out of bed and, shaking, opened the lid of my computer and went straight to BBC News, as that’s where you go when you want to know if something is true. His face filled the front page; I think the photo they used at first was from the Brits, 1996. I can’t really describe how I felt; I don’t think the words exist. I ran downstairs to my flatmate, in the kitchen, and burst into tears. He didn’t know how to react. I ran back upstairs and just sort of paced around for a minute, with no idea what to do. I feel sick and dizzy and flushed just thinking about it.
My phone started buzzing with more texts, emails started coming in, Facebook messages. I knew I had to call dad even though it was early, around 8.20am by now. I was in a terrible state. He later told me that when I called and said, through sobs, ‘he’s gone, he’s gone’ he thought I meant Dylan at first. He tried to handle me but it was impossible; he was pretty distraught himself and I had a flashed thought that I was glad my mum and my friend Rex were not here to see this. I called Leah and she just seemed to be in shock – Ben woke her only a few minutes before I called and told her and she said, ‘don’t be daft, he can’t be’ – and we had the phone call I’d been dreading for as long as I can remember.
Even then, at such an early stage, we marvelled at how he had pulled off the perfect rock and roll exit, a more flawless piece of death art you would never see. The man had class, right to the end. He had set it all up – from the play to the album – and executed his plan to perfection. We even laughed, and it felt good to laugh, to do that rare thing where you cry and laugh at the same time. I had been invited onto the BBC’s One Show that evening to represent my team in the FA Cup draw and I said, ‘how can I go? How can I be normal and smile on TV and pretend I’m ok?’ She said I should go. I took a pause, and said, ‘I have to do it don’t I? The show must go on!’ And we both laughed again. She had to go to work but we’d talk later, throughout the day. I remember when Lou Reed died (on my birthday), a couple of years before, we had this ashen-faced conversation on the Tube about what we’d do when Bowie goes. It gave me a shudder, like someone walking across a grave, just talking about it. Whichever one of us hears first, about Bowie, should call the other one, was the agreement. I sat on the floor and felt hot tears rolling down my face, unable to catch my breath, rasping and coughing, reaching for tissues.
I called my aunt and cousin and they were shocked and sympathetic. They didn’t call me because they didn’t know if I knew and they didn’t want to be the ones to tell me. They waited for me to call, and both were relieved when I did. After talking to them, I picked myself up off the floor, sat in my chair and tried to take in the outpouring of grief and chaos that was happening on social media. Nobody in my timeline, which is largely journalists and musicians, was talking about anything else. Streams of tweets were being posted every second, he was everywhere, his face, his videos, his performances. It was absolutely fucking crazy and unreal, what I was witnessing, this collective outpouring of pain. I sat in silence. I switched the TV on and muted it. I couldn’t bear to hear his voice. I read some posts in our BowieNet group but I couldn’t bear to write a word. I exchanged brief messages with a few close friends. Some of the Americans weren’t even up yet; it was the middle of the night still for them. The job of telling my friend Dick Mac, in New York, fell to me because he had posted in disbelief and wanted someone to confirm. I had to crush his heart and tell him that the man he had loved for over 40 years was gone. Every Bowie friend was having the exact same experience as me; all of their friends contacted them and offered condolences like they had lost a parent, because they were the first person they thought of when they heard. How could this be? It was all about ‘just’. We were just in New York, a month ago. We just saw him, just went to his play, we just partied and celebrated the album. It can’t be, all this. It can’t be happening. He was just there a minute ago, smiling at the premiere. I just saw the video for Lazarus. I just heard the album. 33 days after his final public appearance he was dead. This was one of the worst days of my life.
I decided that I was going to go to the BBC that night. I had to do something instead of just sitting in my room. My eyes were hurting. I felt like I was losing it, in a dream state of some kind, so I had to try and do something normal. The BBC News channel had been running the same package for about three hours, while they put together a real tribute. They changed it at about 11am. By then the talking heads were on, and none of them were doing justice to what I felt. I wasn’t interested in listening to pundits who met him a couple of times. The next thing I remember was deciding that I could no longer sit in silence and that I had to face listening to his voice at some point, so at about 3pm I put the sound on; I howled, it was like pulling off a bandage, getting a jolt of searing, shocking pain. I Skyped Dick Mac in New York and we cried together. I talked to Kate in Ohio and did the same. I wrote something on Facebook because I had to get down how I felt, much like this. Then I pulled myself together and went into town – I walked to Heddon Street and talked to some strangers, then looked at the flowers, got down on one knee and wept. Some guy with a camera interviewed me but I don’t remember what I said. I got the bus to the BBC building near Oxford Circus, meeting my friend Andrew, who works there, to hand over a Blackstar badge I’d promised him and we just tried to talk to each other like we weren’t living through a nightmare, making each other laugh with weak jokes while he gave me a little tour. Being at the building was pretty surreal, with its huge screens everywhere, all playing a loop of their tributes. His face covered every wall. I pretended to be a human person and did the One Show, wearing a Bowie shirt under my football one. I tried to talk a little to my fellow football fans and they did the ‘yes, ooh, it’s terrible, I can’t believe it, wasn’t Heroes a great song’ sort of blurb and I nodded and thought, ‘you have no idea how I feel today but that’s ok. I envy you.’ When the filming started I positioned myself where I knew the camera would have me on TV the entire way through the broadcast and cup draw. When the green light went on and the hosts started their monologues I put my hand on my heart and thumbed the Blackstar badge on my jacket lapel for the camera. I didn’t know if anyone could see me and I didn’t care. But I knew what I was doing. When I got home there was a message waiting about Leah, Jake and I meeting in Brixton to go to the mural and lay some flowers the day after and I said I’d be there. I passed out from sheer exhaustion at about midnight. One day had felt like a month.
I took short breaks from crying on the Tuesday and got back to work. I’d done some pieces of work on Monday and continued to do so; the distraction was valuable. People kept asking me if I was ok and I kept replying ‘it feels exactly like I thought it would’. So many said that they were shocked at the outpouring of grief. I wasn’t. It all played out exactly how I knew it would – nothing surprised me about how people were reacting. I knew when he went it would be a big fucking deal, and it was. I’d feared the day my whole life. At least it can’t happen twice. My heart can only break like this once.
My emails from Monday were filled with dazed, shaken people trying to process it all and give and receive comfort somehow. Lori told me she was still in total shock, but feeling ok until another text/voicemail came in from friends and family offering condolences again. She asked me how I was doing. I replied:
“I’m just… numb. My face hurts from crying. We are all experiencing the same weird thing: that all of our friends, near and far, close and acquaintance, are contacting us today to ask if we’re ok. We’re not.
London is in mourning. I went to Heddon St and read the tributes, the flowers on the spot where Ziggy was photographed. I think Jake and Leah and I will go to the mural in Brixton tomorrow. TV is wall to wall. His beautiful face everywhere. I can hardly take it…”
On Tuesday we went to Brixton in the evening and joined a huge crowd paying their respects. People crying and singing, putting down photos and flowers and signs and holding each other. It felt good to do the same, though I do remember saying ‘I can’t believe we’re doing this’, as I looked at the flowers and photos. The next day I went into work at a client’s office and took breaks to have a little cry as I was working alone in a conference room. I did some writing the day after, a letter to Uncut about him, which was their lead letter in the next issue (it was good, heartfelt; I knew they’d print it). Friends had already started getting Blackstar tattoos by this point and I decided I was going to do the same. As soon as I saw the album cover in November I knew it was a brilliant tattoo idea and I resolved to get it done one day; I just didn’t realise I’d be compelled to do it so soon. It helped to obsess about it over the next weeks. After a few days I tried to listen to Blackstar, because I knew he had designed it for us, to help us mourn him. That was its purpose, it was like a puzzle with a missing piece before then and now it made sense. That Saturday we had a wake of sorts at a bar in Kings Cross. Songs were played and rivers of tears were shed. A few weeks later I got the tattoo, the five partial (well, four partial, one complete) star pieces, with a little Aladdin Sane flourish – blue and red halves, separated by a lightning bolt – in the second star. Frankly, it’s the least I can do for this man who changed my whole life. Who gave me so many people and so much music. This man who I will need and love forever; this man who is part of my DNA.
The tributes have kept coming and, in all honesty, very few of them have provided any comfort (though perhaps their purpose is to give that to the writer, not the reader). I didn’t want to hear what anyone said unless they actually knew David Jones, not Bowie, which is why Gary Oldman was great at the Brits. There was also a brilliant roundtable interview with Gail and Mark Plati. I’m still processing it all. You have no idea how much you can miss a person until you have no choice. I don’t love his music more than before, I loved it to the maximum while he was here. I’m grateful for the sheer volume of stuff left behind but it’s never going to feel like enough, and I don’t care about the vault right now. Knowing there are treasure troves of unreleased stuff is not going to make this better. I go through periods of listening to Blackstar for a couple of days and then not for a couple of weeks; I have to be in the right mood because it still has the capacity to make me cry (especially those last two songs, they’re too much), and maybe it always will. It’s strange to hear people talk about him in the past tense, and to think that younger fans will never know him as someone who was alive; to them he’ll be like Elvis or Kurt or Jimi – a dead rock star. They’ll never see what I saw, or live through him being present and releasing music. He’ll not accompany them on their life’s journey, like he did with me for over 30 years. My constant companion, who was always there by my side.
I learned that grief is a state of being when I lost my mum. I was truly knocked sideways by how much I missed her, how much I continue to miss her. I have endless capacity to pine for her, to wish I could tell her about a cool thing that happened to me or email her a link that made me laugh, or talk to her on the phone about these new Dylan-does-Sinatra-standards albums, which she would have loved so much. You don’t ever get over losing a parent, or in this case a cultural parent, if you like, which you could say Bowie was. You just figure out how to fold the loss into your life. In his case, I didn’t know him so it feels different; I didn’t give him anything, or ever talk to him, I just took what he gave me, the messages that he sent. I’m still getting used to him not being here, as we come up to our annual BowieNet party in July. He sent us little notes three years in a row, which was lovely, and which he absolutely didn’t have to do. I think it kind of tickled him that we’d get together and get drunk and party and listen to his songs (and raise money for charity) at an annual knees-up. Those messages made it feel like he wasn’t an ocean away. Now he feels an endless distance away. The transition period is bumpy but it won’t always be like this. Soon he’ll be a memory; his story has ended. The only thing keeping him alive is us. I watch videos now, gigs on DVD and bootlegs, and he looks so… alive. It’s strange to see that guy performing and get that hollow feeling, that knowledge of him not being on the earth anymore. No longer sitting in New York watching the same stupid You Tube clips we do and laughing, getting to hear new music every day, getting excited about what’s coming next. Just… life.
We should all aim to leave an imprint. So when we’re gone we won’t be forgotten. For most of us that’s just to our friends and family, they’re the only ones who’ll remember us. By talking about us when we’re gone they won’t forget us. It’s a somewhat bigger achievement to be loved and remembered by millions, way beyond your own close circle, but he was a unique, special man. He’ll be loved and remembered for as long as people play music.
“As long as there’s me, as long as there’s you…”
On January 8th 2013, David Bowie’s 66th birthday, he dropped a bomb on an unsuspecting public: a new single ; with a new album, The Next Day, to follow in March; then, we got a second video just before February’s end; and finally, ten days before the album’s release, an iTunes stream. Following nearly a decade of semi-retirement (or was it misdirection?), the release of Where Are We Now? was a PR masterstroke that provoked an astonished outpouring of love and excitement among starving acolytes. Nobody knew it was coming – even The Outside Organisation, Bowie’s long-time PR company, didn’t know until Christmas 2012. In the cold light of day, he did nothing except make a record and keep it a secret. He did this in our online era, where everyone is over-sharing, stealing music is commonplace, the music industry is transforming, against its will, and most public figures can’t buy a pint of milk without media training. In the process, he made what could have been a drip-drip publicity campaign of teasing and snippets and buzz that would have cost millions completely obsolete. There was a rush to explain how on earth this had happened. Sony’s president, Rob Stringer, was so peeved with the perception that he might not have known about the existence of an album his own label was releasing that he insisted on a correction to a Guardian piece that had dared to claim he found out at the same time as the PR agency. He knew in October, he snorted, desperate to appear to be two extra months inside the loop. He didn’t know earlier because Sony obviously didn’t fund the recording – and if record labels aren’t paying for that old staple, what do they even do now? He is oblivious, seemingly, to his own irrelevance – the joke of being so unimportant to an artist comically lost on him.
As I sat, with The Next Day’s iTunes preview before me, I felt like I’d been given a 14-course Michelin-starred meal all at once and was expected to eat every last morsel. Reviewers got a couple of hours in a darkened room with this album. What a task to demand of them: to write defining reviews for serious newspapers , magazines and websites with only a couple of plays under the belt, the first of which is really just reverberation from the shock of the existence of the album in the first place. What’s the point of such secrecy anyway – to prevent leaks? The right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing because the album started streaming online 10 days before the release date and can now be easily found, online, for free. The music industry have given up trying to sell music at all but PR companies can’t let go of their tiny measure of control. How pointless. But then, half way through my second play, I was driven to write something too, and it felt possible. Perhaps that’s the lesson of these past two months – everything is possible.
We will each have our own unique relationship with The Next Day. There’ll be teenagers coming to him anew, with this album being the first one they’ll have bought (or stolen). What must it feel like to be at the beginning of such a journey? They have untold riches ahead. But whether you’re a kid or Bowie’s age, you’ll have your own personal connection to this album. I can only talk about my own. My first play was rushed, as I was heading out of the house, and I barely heard anything, I couldn’t take it in. Later that same day, I closed the door and the curtains, turned the light off, put on my headphones and pressed play. As the album was nearing its end, about half way through How Does the Grass Grow? I realised that tears were rolling down my face. Why that song in particular I have no idea. It was just too much, perhaps, and it all got concentrated into that one moment. I’ve lost so much in the last year, and while I have never written about it, never felt the desire to write down how I feel, and have felt, I found myself crumbling to a moment of loss, of my own sadness.
Since I lost my mum my heart has hurt every single day. She would always ask me when Bowie was going to make his comeback, and I’d tell her it didn’t look likely at all. And no matter what anyone says now, it fucking didn’t. In a millennium, I could never have told my mum that I thought he was secretly working on an album. I had no clue, none of us did. So she will never know this joy, she will never hear this record. She was the first person I would have called on that breathless day, January 8th. She loved him and would have been so happy about this unexpected turn of events. She would have watched the video for The Stars (Are Out Tonight) a dozen times. That I never got, and will never get, to tell her has caused a sadness that will never leave me. And yet, this record does what it’s supposed to do, at its very heart – it makes me happy.
During the creation of any album, there are a thousand creative decisions to be taken. Whether you make an album that takes two weeks or two years, it’s all about the roads you choose to take. I couldn’t possibly trust Bowie more than I already do to make the right choices and, expectedly, every element of this album has been carefully picked to work and fit together. Every guitar break (the three-pronged attack of Gerry Leonard, David Torn and Earl Slick works wonderfully throughout), bass line, horn and string part, and every insistent, powerful, drum beat is filled with conviction; every lyric and thought is crafted with precision and passionate expression, and every charismatic vocal delivery employs the guile and instincts of the seasoned actor he is. He has created an entire world in which these songs live.
Visconti wasn’t kidding when he said the single wasn’t indicative of the album. The whole experience of listening to The Next Day is to find yourself battered around the head by a man who is letting his silence on life, love, death, war, history, religion and politics end. And yet, and this is the crucial point, this is an artistic statement of someone who wants to fight. It is an angry record, one that expresses vicious and contemptuous judgement, but it also talks of the journey of mortality; it’s partially reflective, true, with the odd look back, but it’s very much thematically rooted in the present, in the world he’ll leave for his daughter one day. It would be easy to say that this bit sounds like it could be on Lodger, that bit is straight out of Scary Monsters and so on. But such flourishes are the lesser strokes of a paintbrush on a huge canvas; The Next Day very much lives and breathes in the present. It has its own personality and will find its own place in the canon. You knew it would, because he is far too clever to put something out after this length of time that didn’t stand proudly alongside the rest. Every decision made is a careful one, and there’s nothing wrong with employing his famed level of control freakery if you’re adding to a back catalogue of such immensity.
The first thing that knocks you over is the remarkable pace it sets off at, with the title song having more than a touch of Tin Machine’s abrasive propulsion as it tells a dark tale of medieval death on the gallows. Dirty Boys is like the sex cousin of Sister Midnight , with a groove so filthy you could imagine a tassel-twirling burlesque performer getting off to it in a Soho dive bar. The Stars (Are Out Tonight), divested of its staggering video accompaniment , is a solid gold pop hit, with wonderful melodic work from Gerry Leonard and David Torn and a gorgeous Visconti string arrangement. The dramatic Love Is Lost tells a dynamic yet indifferent, lonely tale of displacement, which seems to lead perfectly into Where Are We Now? For all the talk of nostalgia, it’s the only track that harks back, lyrically at least, to bygone times. When you know you have more years behind you than ahead, and the gift to siphon those feelings into a creative outlet, the desire to blink for a second and allow for reflection is understandable. But it’s a fleeting moment before we’re off again, into a lovely, light pop song, Valentine’s Day, though the subject, a troubled and dark-minded protagonist, muddles its musical sweetness. The face-melting If You Can See Me follows, a song ambitious and portentous enough to have sat comfortably on Outside. The time signature alone is a blood twister and the chemistry of the brilliant Tony Levin and Zachary Alford makes the song what it is.
It’s at this point that there’s a dip, which after the blast of the first seven tracks feels like a surprise. But then again, Scary Monsters aside, it’s par for the course that a Bowie album has a filler or two, which is no crime. Dancing Out in Space is pretty pedestrian (and the title, good as it is, inevitably makes me think of Flight of the Conchords ) and I’d Rather Be High and Boss of Me (great verses, prosaic chorus) are just good songs, they’re not great. But so what? It’s an album where the ideas spill forth unrestrained, and that’s worth a couple of tracks you know you’ll skip after you know it all better. The odd bit of imperfection is offset by huge swathes of intensity and dazzling quality. How Does the Grass Grow? is beautifully crafted and seems to have some combination of cadence and timbre that makes my tear ducts overflow. How does it do that? (You Will) Set The World on Fire is a mammoth track, with a Slick guitar line Pete Townshend would be proud of. It’s the kind of song that he tossed off in the 80s and, because of his general disinterest in his own music during that period, would have let become submerged amid layers of someone else’s production control. Here, it’s powerful, sleek and insistent.
And then, we get to You Feel So Lonely You Could Die (nice title nod to Heartbreak Hotel). If you’re thinking that this straight-ahead rock album is perhaps lacking something, a big overblown epic, say, this is your moment. Bowie knows exactly what he’s invoking here, and you can do nothing but marvel at its sheer bloody cheek. This extraordinary song, a companion piece to I Know It’s Gonna Happen Someday (itself a parody of a Morrissey homage), or even the hallowed Rock and Roll Suicide, is completely thrilling. It pulls you back and forth, it emotionally exhausts you, and the delivery is off the scale. And just when you think there’s no more emotional heft it can give or receive, as it fades away the drum beat of Five Years comes in and you almost burst out laughing at its brazen flamboyance, arrogance and utter ostentatiousness. The Scott Walker-esque Heat, the album’s closer, is like a Tuesday comedown, a mesmerising mantra-like chant not unlike Heathen.
There are no accidents here. There are no half-thought ideas executed with flippancy. The playing is exemplary and Visconti’s production is imbued with the love and respect and skilled invention that 40+ years of friendship and understanding brings. He knows what’s needed, he knows how to add the right touches intuitively, and the shorthand of their relationship is stitched into every track. Every musician who has spent time making this record has done it with love and devotion in their heart. Asked to keep the album’s existence a secret from those closest to them for nigh on two years, without blinking, without argument, the deal was done. Everyone wants to do their best for him and will wait a decade to get a call then accept the invitation without pause or even a thought of complaint.
All Bowie albums are pictures of his mind in particular moments. Has this set been formed over the last couple of years or has he been collecting and creating, bit by bit, since he walked off stage at his last public performance, the 2006 Black Ball? We will never know, but we do know that recording took place in fragments over two years. Sessions lasting a week, then not a call for months; another couple of tracks, then more silence for more months, until he was ready. If there was external pressure to record or tour, via demands from a record label, from management, from fans, from anyone, he paid little attention. There are no interviews, no explanations. The album says everything he wants to say. He ignored everyone to walk around New York in a baseball cap, and do the odd movie cameo and the school run, and this is what we got.
It’s such a gift, and one I never expected. It’s overwhelming. I could overanalyse it if I wanted. I could try and figure out if, had it come out 18 months after Reality, whether I’d love it this much. I could try and place it in the larger canon and measure it up against albums that have meant so much to me. I could try to think about whether his long absence is affecting how I feel about it. Or I could just answer the simplest question – does listening to it make me happy? Because after all the words are spoken and written, after all the discussion and critical evaluation, and in mind of all of the happiness that I’ve been unable to feel for a year, all that matters is whether it makes me happy. Yes. It makes me happy.
The arrival of Bowie on stage felt like the ultimate in fevered anticipation. As Garson strolled out, sat behind his piano and launched into the familiar opening of Life on Mars we strained to catch a glimpse. And then, there he was. Outfitted in a blue silk suit, with (tied) tie, he sauntered, in that particular way of his, to centre stage as the theatre erupted. And from that moment you knew it was going to be a night like no other. That long, cold night on the concrete outside the venue last Friday was going to be worth it, as we always knew.
Before we could blink he was off - Ashes to Ashes, Look Back in Anger and the "first cowboy song of the night", Cactus followed. The set was a blur as the songs came thick and fast. I'm sure someone will have written it down but I sat in awe as he thundered through the songs that have defined and accompanied all our lives. His trademark energy puts us all to shame - his boundless, ceaseless zest for all the material was astounding.
The Heathen tracks sat beautifully next to the other songs - 5.15, Slip Away, Afraid, I've Been Waiting for You took their rightful place alongside Fame, Fashion, Breaking Glass and so on. The welcome addition of Absolute Beginners was a surprise and everyone smiled as David and Gail danced around the stage as it ended. Not to be outdone he then uttered the famed phrase "not only is this the last show of the tour." The crowd sank to a hush then a cheer as he repeated the line he had once said many years before then he added "but this is the last show we'll ever do." then a pause for dramatic effect before adding "on the day of a fucking Tube strike!"
A cheeky stripped down version of Rebel Rebel had the crowd howling in delight and the gorgeous title track of Heathen ended the first part of the show. Everyone sat, simply stunned in submission by what we were watching and before we could catch our breath he was back again with the sublime Sunday. If the exact song order is sketchy it can only be because it was hard to centre oneself after such a night. Then came the moment I had been dreaming of for as long as I can remember – my favourite song live.
"I'm an alligator." My heart jumped a hundred feet. "I'm a rock and rolling bitch for you." If the gig had been 99.9% perfect until now this was the missing link. I never thought in any wild dream that I would see him perform Moonage Daydream let alone in this venue. Before (or after, still hazy on specifics) someone threw a black and silver feather boa on stage which David picked up and draped around his neck as he had once done before on this same stage. This has been hard to write, as usually a review must have balance, the parts liked with the parts not as much. This was impossible as, genuinely, as all the moments had been just as I imagined every night before this. Now it had been made real.
Then as if it was the most casual announcement it came: "We've only ever performed this song once before.". I think my heart actually stopped as I thought, no chance, he isn't actually going to do this song is he? It just wasn't possible - that we could witness only the second ever public performance of. "This one's called the Bewlay Brothers." He thought no one would know it but the vast majority if the crowd knew exactly how much this one meant. It was word perfect. Can't wait to get the bootleg.
I was stunned after that; to be lucky enough to hear this song performed live was something that left me speechless. It was a wonderful blur - Everyone Says Hi, Starman, Changes, I never wanted it to end. But it must and what better way to make grown men weep than with a roof-raising rendition of Ziggy Stardust. He has so far to go, so many great moments yet to bestow on us.
Life On Mars?
Ashes To Ashes
Look Back In Anger
Speed of Life
Be My Wife
I’m Afraid of Americans
5:15 The Angels Have Gone
I’ve Been Waiting For You
Heathen (The Rays)
I Would Be Your Slave
A New Career In A New Town
Everyone says 'Hi'
The Bewlay Brothers
Sound and Vision
I've never felt such a sense of excitement and anticipation. I'd be lying if I said the other attendees weren't a part of that. Having spent the day building up outside the venue with so many wonderful Bnetters, whipping each other up into frenzy, was thrilling and I felt honoured to be part of it.
Clad in pale blue denim trousers and jacket with a black T shirt saying 'Metal World' he looked the picture of perfection. The band cracked into the title track from the new album. Then.. Modern Love. I was really shocked to hear this one, very ripped up and fast but a wonderful surprise.
The show was extremely well balanced, 3 songs from Heathen (Afraid, Cactus and the title track to finish), greeted like the classics they have become, a couple of oldies and 6 songs from Reality.
I was feeling nervous about the new songs and clearly so was he. At first I thought it might be false modesty but he really did seem to be worried about how the new material might go down and how it might sound. It's a mystery to me why Never Get Old isn't the first single. New Killer Star is a wonderful record (played *so* well tonight and sang with heart by everyone; amazing considering it hasn't been released yet) and definitely a single but Never Get Old is just superb.
Fall Dog went down extremely well, a lovely song. He didn't fail to notice our appreciation and how well these tunes were going down. Pablo Picasso almost brought the roof caving in. And they just kept on coming: Battle For Britain; TMWSTW; Rebel Rebel and a temperature-raising version of Iggy's Sister Midnight, followed by a great rendition of I'm Afraid of Americans.
The crowd packed into this tiny theatre were hot and sweaty throughout, gasping for air.I have never jumped and sang and hollered as loud in my life. How can you go back to arenas once you've been to a show of this size? Waiting outside the venue before the show, the band, then David, arrived and waved. He came out and talked to everyone, exhibiting the charm I’ve been told about. He signed various things and, having never been as close to him, I was rather open-mouthed I think. But it occurs to me that the guy who said hi to us and was not the same guy as the one on stage. He goes through a transformation the like of which I've never seen, a supreme act. He is simply mesmerising on stage.
Allow me a shallow moment: I must tell you that this man has been working out, and I don't just mean boxing: I mean down the gym! He has not looked this good since the disrobing performances of Tin Machine. The piercing screams of the teens behind me attested to that.
And don't even get me started on Hang On To Yourself, Suffragette City and an exquisite version of Fantastic Voyage: these songs rocked the Chance so much they'll need to put in new floors tomorrow!
This year (and some of next) are going to be shows like you've never seen, and I know you've seen it all. He's so fit and raring to go. He's ready for this world tour, and so are we. See you on the road!
New Killer Star
Battle For Britain (The Letter)
Fall Dog Bombs The Moon
I'm Afraid Of Americans
She'll Drive The Big Car
Never Get Old
The Man Who Sold The World
Hang On To Yourself
Heathen (The Rays)...
So back to the aforementioned Mr Ross, who did a fabulous job all night might I add. He told us that David would come out and do a warm up to check the sound, which I wasn’t expecting really, so when he walked out wearing similar clothes to Poughkeepsie with an Earthling tour type jacket a flash of excitement shot through the lucky attendees. We got A New Career In A New Town and bits of Blur’s Song 2 and even Link Wray's Rumble, which he insisted none of us would know!
There was much checking of times in earpieces and satellites and then we were off! As I expected NKS was the first tune up and, it was received loudly and warmly. Even though I knew he was doing the whole of Reality I wasn’t sure if it would be in order a la the Heathen/Low shows last year. Well when Pablo Picasso was announced I knew it would be! I must say the album sounds wonderful in entirety and even though he thought we wouldn’t know it because ‘you haven’t had your bootlegs long enough yet’ every song was sung with great passion and recognition especially Never Get Old which I’m sure will turn into a firm live favourite.
Set-wise the simple lights and wooden floors with catwalk added a great deal to the ambience of the studio and db made full use of the extended stage when he walked out to do The Loneliest Guy, a beautiful and clearly emotional song for him and many of the audience. It seemed like the rest of the album whizzed by, Disco King, the only song I hadn’t heard yet, almost knocked us all out; this must be the best song on the album.
I’d forgotten about the Q&A completely but it turned out to be such a good laugh. A combination of well-handled technical difficulties and great answers (on haircuts, dogs and James Bond); a bit like the Eurovision Song Contest without the shit tunes.
So then on to the request section, which started with my favourite song of the night, Hallo Spaceboy. The band was so good last night; they’ve all really developed a rapport and connection that is better than any Bowie band I’ve ever seen. Oblivious to the cameras we jumped and sang our hearts out hoping the world was wishing they were in our place. Fantastic Voyage is always welcome (my second hearing in 3 weeks), NKS was performed again and the air was punched even more emphatically the second time. And then it was over. He swaggered offstage looking understandably pleased with himself. We attended the biggest interactive music event of all time and I can’t think of anyone who could do it better.
Many post-gig drinks later I got home at 4am and now I’m sitting at work with a giant smile on my face remembering flashes of last night. Talking of flashes there was a couple of T-shirt moments that raised the temperature a little from the man on stage. I got almost to the end without mentioning how good he looked too ;-)
A new Career in a new town
A bit of Song 2
A bit of Rumble
(Whole of Reality album) New Killer Star Pablo Picasso Never Get Old The Loneliest Guy Looking for Water She'll Drive the Big Car Days Fall Dog Bombs The Moon Try Some, Buy Some Reality Bring Me The Disco King
Q n A with Jonathan Ross
Hang On To Yourself
New Killer Star...
Yesterday was better. Everything: it was more polished, the set list was more varied and the running order and flow of the show is down pat (after only 5 gigs no less). We got there late so ended up about 10 rows back on the left. It’s funny to me now how that seems miles away. Before Poughkeepsie I’d seen each Bowie gig from the back of a stadium and now, I admit, I’m totally spoiled.
I guess the one thing I was after, unattainable you might say when you went to Poughkeepsie and Riverside, was surprises. Even having seen the show last week I still wanted them. Second song in? Jean Genie. And then Fashion. And then Try Some, Buy Some. First performances on the tour. Well, that’s sorted.
I was delighted that so many of the audience knew the Heathen songs, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised. It is his highest profile and impact album in years. Slip Away has really become the great anthem from it for this tour.
Set list... well, we all have our opinions on it. Personally I’m over it: I could, as could you, choose a 50 song set list not played last night or any other on the tour. But what has been chosen fits completely with the band and the demands of an arena tour.
Having said that there were tunes that just about took the high roof off the Ahoy in Rotterdam: Suffragette City (brilliant as ever), Changes, China Girl, Ashes to Ashes, Let’s Dance etc. I was thrilled to hear The Motel (never heard it live before) and an exquisite Tibet gig style version of Loving the Alien.
Having never travelled to see him live outside England I wondered if there was a point where I’d get fed up of hearing the same songs. After 4 gigs so far this year I can only say bring it on! I’m getting more excited with each passing show and feel a bit like a runner on starting blocks waiting for the gun to go off… next stop Frankfurt.
New Killer Star
Fall Dog Bombs The Moon
White Light, White Heat
Ashes To Ashes (followed by a snippet of Blur's Song 2)
Try Some, Buy Some
Never Get Old
5:15 The Angels Have Gone
Loving The Alien
I'm Afraid Of Americans
Heathen (The Rays)
Bring Me The Disco King
David Bowie: Frankfurt Festhalle October 18 2003
So here I am in Frankfurt trying to get my thoughts together about this gig. Firstly I must say the Dandys were good tonight: all foppish caps and louche demeanour. The best I've seen them so far. He started with Jean Genie for the second time in a week (the first I saw too in Rotterdam) which was a bit of a surprise, having only started with NKS thus far up until Wednesday. Storming versions of Battle for Britain tonight and a quite amazing run through of Suffragette City. The crowd took a bit of warming up but by the end were his. Spaceboy raised the roof as ever and Ziggy sent us home happy to say the least.
What struck me most of all tonight, watching the crowd, was how he has them in the palm of his hand. What a performer, filled with experience and knowledge of how to, pardon the phrase, get everyone off. Each Reality song improves with every play especially Never Get Old: he'll be playing it for years. Hearing Heroes performed in Germany was something I thought I'd never hear so it was such a pleasure and very different in terms of vibe from hearing it in England, for example.
I tell you, I'm knackered and I've only done 3 gigs. I have no idea how he does this night after night... the man has stamina to shame us all! Next gig won't be for a month (in Lyon)... can't wait!!
Now the funny thing is that I decided I couldn't possibly wait a month to see him again, such was the groove of flying and getting up early and travelling and staying in cheap hotels that I'd gotten myself into. I realised that 2 weeks after Frankfurt he was playing in Hanover on Nov 1, bisecting the Frankfurt and Nov 15 Lyon gigs. I bought a ticket, booked the flight and just went. It was a Saturday, as many of the gigs I saw were, so no time off work required. What a wonderful time it was, getting up on Saturday and jetting off to some random European city to see him play live, nice and close up too! I'm grateful I had the opportunity to do it because I'm pretty sure it'll never happen like that again. Good times......
As he raised his arms and sang the last words at the end of Ziggy I shed a happy tear for all the friends I’ve made and songs I’ve heard. It wasn’t the first tear shed. Five Years in Lyon saw to that. Then there was almost getting thrown out of the gig during NKS in Copenhagen, getting lost in Rotterdam, getting elbowed in Frankfurt, 9 hours of driving for Hanover, a morning in casualty in Manchester, at the front again in Dublin… the list goes on and on. So much has happened since October 7th. I stepped into Wembley Arena last night with a huge amount of personal sadness that it was all about to end.
The show has become so familiar, but no less thrilling, to me. The music starts and David's voice booms out something along the lines of: ‘That’s good, let’s try that again’. The lights go out and the animation starts. Rebel Rebel (usually!) opens the show perfectly.
I had hoped tonight would be different to Tuesday’s show since the second nights played in the same venue usually are: I wasn’t disappointed. Fashion instead of Fame, Big Car, an early inclusion of Hang on to Yourself, Be My Wife, Jean Genie, White Light White Heat and Starman for the first time on this tour! It’s always a pleasure to hear Fantastic Voyage too. I’ve never been so floored by a vocal as I am by Gail’s in Under Pressure; the notes she hits are quite astounding. Every member of the band fits perfectly and certainly Gerry has added a dimension to the music I’ve never heard before.
It seemed to me that seeing both nights at Wembley presented a complete picture of the show. The audience, shackled by seating and over zealous security, were appreciative though I was surrounded by the kind of fan who is rather happy to hear the hits and has a bit of a sit down during the songs they don’t know.
Seeing Bowie in such a mainstream venue it did make me think about his appeal and the reaction to Life on Mars was the best example of it. There’s something about LOM at the moment that is really getting to me: I can barely get through it without choking up, something that has never happened to me before. Seeing the massive sing-a-long and standing ovation I realised that he, to us, is this familiar character who tells daft jokes that only we get and plays Bnet shows in venues you’d never get a ticket for otherwise. To the other 95% of the audience last night he was an untouchable icon, they were listening to one of the greatest songs ever written and couldn’t quite believe he was standing right there belting it out. When you're in a massive arena and he's being appreciated by 10,000 it makes you realise who he really is.
Watching him hold every single person in Wembley enraptured was wonderful and it made me even more grateful that I’ve been able to share so many moments like that over the last 7 weeks.
My thanks go to: David and the band; to my BNet family who made me so welcome in so many European destinations; Trevor and the Gnome for the best after party in history and to Blammo for putting up with my incessant waffling – over email and the phone from New York, gibbering as I was at 5am after Poughkeepsie.
Now we’re sending him across the ocean to carry on this amazing spectacle outside Europe. Treat him well, look after his voice and enjoy the rest of the tour.
New Killer Star
Hang On To Yourself
The Loneliest Guy
The Man Who Sold The World
Life On Mars?
Ashes To Ashes
Be My Wife
She'll Drive The Big Car
I'm Afraid Of Americans
White Light, White Heat
(LT note: I really did think that was the last show I’d see, then he announced a massive, sadly uncompleted, summer festival tour. I had to go to and went on an eventful Amsterdam weekend. I’m eternally glad I didn’t know Amsterdam would be the last time I saw him live, since I had a ticket to a Monaco show for a few weeks after, which was one of the shows cancelled.)...
It turns out I’m severely out of gig practice because, 2 days later, I’m still aching from the sheer exuberance of the performance at the Amsterdam Arena. He’s as fresh as a daisy, but I’m getting too old for this. Arriving late I somehow got a great place about 5 rows from the front, no mean feat in a stadium filled with 25,000 fans. The setting was unusual, the stadium roof was on but it was still daylight. As soon as the cartoon kicked in a wave of happiness and contentment descended over me, like I was being transported back to all the gigs I did last year.
I never tire of Rebel Rebel, it really is the perfect gig opener. But then… Panic in Detroit! I’d never heard that live before, such a treat. He complained at us for singing All The Young Dudes, and said as our punishment we had to endure a song from the 80s! He took the piss out of the terrible arena acoustics "You’ll be hearing these songs twice tonight, maybe more!"
He was in great form, tons of jokes and filled with enjoyment at being back in Europe. After over 100 gigs I don’t know where he finds the energy. There was a cheeky dig at the Yanks he’d just left behind. "It’s so lovely to see a crowd filled with such pretty people. Everyone’s so pretty. And I should know, I just got back from America! I feel like a man finally finding water in the desert!"
It was such a wonderfully familiar feeling: seeing him enjoying the crowd, Susan bouncing at the front, Cat’s infectious grin, Gail’s soaring voice, Slick’s playing even more killer than it was last year… I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be and am now gutted my next gig isn’t until Monaco.
Watching the American reports with excitement at the new setlist additions I tried to avoid thinking about any new songs I might be getting, even refusing to say the names of the songs I wanted to hear the most. I can say it now because he played it: Station to Station. I have never wanted to hear a song more and my god the band nailed it. I had heard it once before; my first ever Bowie gig at Maine Road in 1990. I don’t remember that performance of it but I’ll never forget this one. This might sound flighty and over-exaggerated but I think I may have had some kind of religious experience during that song! I looked up (way up, the stage was much higher than usual) at him, the returning Thin White Duke throwing darts in lovers’ eyes and I wanted that complete and perfect moment never to end.
Diamond Dogs wasn’t half bad either. Quicksand completed the trilogy of songs I’d never heard before. All in all, a perfect return to Europe for him and a memorable night for me. Next stop Monte Carlo!
New Killer Star
Panic In Detroit
All The Young Dudes
The Loneliest Guy
The Man Who Sold The World
Heathen (The Rays)
Ashes To Ashes
Hang On To Yourself
Station To Station
I'm Afraid Of Americans
White Light, White Heat