Song Of The Day 1/16/2016: David Bowie – “Where Are We Now?”

Photo: Jimmy King

My friend Dana said something to the effect of, "I'm not prepared to live in a world without David Bowie."

That startled me because I'd never thought that way about someone not in my immediate family. As my lifelong heroes have started aging, and are now getting to that point in their chronology where they could dissipate from view any minute via natural causes, it becomes a concern. But in almost all cases, I've accepted that one day they just won't be there anymore. I reserve the right to a month of catatonia when Costello or Dylan or Hitchcock shuffles off, but everyone else I'll manage.

But Dana's right. Bowie worked his way into the fabric of music so tightly that he's just part of the definition of pop music, not just one of its avatars. The history of rock goes through him and a very select few others. I'm not ready for him to not be there.

It's become clear that Bowie was, on his last (I originally typed "latest") release Blackstar and maybe even The Next Day three years ago, trying to warn us that it was coming.

Blackstar was the first album I listened to in 2016. This was after a year in which, after hearing about 750 new albums in the previous two years, I listened to so little new music that I didn't feel qualified to put together a year-end Top 10 list. That's a personal embarrassment to me, so I re-upped my commitment to listen to more new music this year and take notes on each album, whether I was reviewing it for publication or not.

By now we all know the significance of Bowie's final music video "Lazarus," but when I heard the song on January 4 it was just a standalone composition with no more relevance than anything else on the album.

This is what I wrote down while listening to "Lazarus":

"Bowie death?" At the time I jotted that down it had as much essence as "Jay-Z wealth?" or "Taylor Swift ex-boyfriend?" Meaning it was a key theme or strain in enough of his work that it was almost a given, to be weighed alongside all the other times he spoke to it. Of course, you could make a case for the statement "Everybody who's done original rock music since the mid-60's death?" being accurate.

Now we know there was more intent behind "Lazarus"; it's not just another addition to his canon. Once again he was playing with our expectations of his character, realizing how it was once hard to determine who the real David Bowie was. "Dropped my cell phone down below / Ain't that just like me?" Comic, British understatement, teasing self-knowledge (and our knowledge too), and terminal forboding in eleven short words. And we're not even supposed to consider "ain't" a proper word.

But since his death forced us all to rethink about what he meant to us and who he actually was, it's become a little easier. We're attaching a benevolence to him now, in a very similar way that we did with Lemmy Kilmister last week. If anything good can be said about David's and Lemmy's passings, it's that the outpouring of grief has been oddly inspirational. Those of us who weren't aware of how close they were to the heartbeat of the music they represented — now we know.

What's remarkable about the widespread Bowie adulation over the last week was his relative withdrawal from the industry over the last 25 years or so. He still made records (and you'd do well to check out Heathen and Reality, from 2002 and 2003 respectively), but until he blind-sided everyone with the surprise release of The Next Day, none of his newer albums were heralded as major events. I haven't even talked about them in this series yet.

Bowie's is one of those careers where everyone understands that he affected things on a much larger level — I think even casual fans would be compelled to recognize he was equally skilled as a cultural theoretician as he was a performer. I'm fairly sure that approach regenerated itself every time someone listened closely to a Bowie LP. Maybe it didn't enter the primary stream of communication about him, but it came through enough.

The national pop music conversation is way different than it was in the '70s and '80s. Chalk that up to the immediacy of communication that now allows sentient beings to say a piece of music "blows" or "sux" or was made by someone who ticked off a #Gamergate reactivist between Twinkies. I believe it's possible to reinstate the deeper conversation with the tools we have. Not likely, probably, and certainly not easily, but possible. If it does we'll be asking many of the same questions and having the same breakthroughs as when we discussed Ziggy, the Berlin era, Scary Monsters and Blackstar.

Bowie's setting up his last album as his "parting gift" to fans — resulting in us posting lyrics to brand new songs of his that have immediately deeper meanings to us — wasn't just a beautifully-orchestrated stage exit. For the last week we've all been talking about what he meant, what he did, what he changed. So now our job is to do something with it. I'll get back to you on that.

In the meantime, I'm closing up the parlor and moving on to other subjects. I'm not quite ready to live in a post-Bowie world either. But apparently he was. And he tried his best to make it as meaningful and celebratory for his fans as possible.

This is where I post a final, single Bowie lyric to sum up as much about him and his spirit as can be told. But I'm having a hard time deciding on one. Ain't that just like me?



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